Will The User Fee Ride Smooth Out?

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As any general-aviation-industry alphabet-soup group will tell you, last week's narrow approval by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation of legislation (S. 1300) to, in part, create a system of user fees to fund the FAA wasn't the final word on the subject. Numerous associations, including NBAA, AOPA, EAA and HAI, to abbreviate a few, have spent the intervening days licking their wounds and planning for the next go-around, which could come as early as this week. That would be when the House of Representatives gets into the act: The House Subcommittee on Aviation has indicated it will develop a draft bill before the Memorial Day recess, which begins with the close of business this week. So far, however, few if any observers know what that bill will contain, although early opposition to the user-fee concept among members of that panel was widespread and deep. The danger is that some form of a user fee -- such as the $25-per-turbine-aircraft-flight fee dropped into the Senate bill -- would be the starting point for negotiations between the two houses when, inevitably, differing versions are passed. At the same time, even if the Senate keeps its head in the sand and its hands out to the airline industry, the $25-per-flight fee could be dropped by a successful amendment when the full Senate considers the bill. In a letter sent Monday, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen thanked all NBAA members for their help in the fight to strike the per-flight user fee from S. 1300. "The committee's vote was just the beginning of what will be a long battle, as a number of congressional committees weigh in on FAA funding issues," Bolen's letter states. "Even though we didn't quite land a knockout blow to user fees with last week's vote, many other opportunities to do so will arise as the FAA reauthorization moves through Congress."

Yesterday, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) reported, "Senate Aviation Subcommittee leaders have threatened to torpedo [S. 1300] if critics of the $25 surcharge ... are successful in stripping it out." According to the HAI, Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W. Va., and ranking member Trent Lott, R-Miss., "have argued that the surcharge would only affect commercial airliners and private business travelers who could well afford to pay the fee." Really? According to NBAA's Bolen, "We hear from Members at every NBAA and industry gathering that you are concerned about this issue and realize that the stakes have never been higher for general aviation." The HAI went on to quote Rockefeller and Lott: "'That $25 surcharge thing was so embarrassing I can't even believe it. Maybe they don't want a bill,' [Rockefeller] said of critics of the surcharge. Senator Lott was more blunt. 'They try one more trick like they did and this bill is dead,' he said. 'I have better things to do with my time. If Jay Rockefeller and I pull the plug on this bill there'll be no FAA reauthorization. No modernization of the system.'" While AVweb doesn't speak for the industry, that might just be fine with a bunch of people we know.