Fees for Service Look a Lot Different — When You Get Stamped

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So, you think we've got it pretty good here in the good ol' U.S. of A. when it comes to aviation? Existing taxes are too high for what you receive? Can't seem to find the next rung in the aviation-industry employment ladder? Believe it or not, our hermanos south of the border have got it all figured out. That's right; Mexico is light years ahead of the U.S., both in finding ways to levy fees and in finding new jobs in aviation. AVweb's Dave Higdon toured Mexico by air, by stamp and by peso. Here's his report.

Full Employment Is Only a Few New Fees Away

December 28
1430 Z
9,500 msl
V23, midway between Veracruz and Villahermosa VORs, Mexico

Suddenly, it's right there before of me and, ay, carumba, does it seem simple.

Planemakers, our alphabet soup-group gurus and we pilots have it all wrong. We've mistakenly spent years of effort and untold dinero in blocking a fee-based system to support our fine-feathered friends working at the Federal Aviation Administration. Instead, I've found a way to give pilots in the U.S. the same advanced personal service we experienced daily flying through the Republic of Mexico.

After only two stops on a trip with four days of flying, every stop became an opportunity to meet happy new friends wielding rubber stamps with one hand and collecting pesos with the other. And, we were only one day and 500 miles into more than 2,000 miles and six or seven landings in Mexico. But in the process of welcoming us to their country and airfield, our new official amigos somehow manage to do all those wonderful things promised to pilots by a succession of White House occupants (right, left and ambidextrous), by lobbyists, even by airline-industry and air carrier executives, every one of them striving to improve the lot of aviation inside both cockpits and tower cabs.

What have we been thinking? We could be expanding opportunities, creating an airway to the 21st century in which every upright citizen in the national brigade would have a chance to, ahem, enjoy a career in aviation. Instead, we in the U.S. have closed off the most obvious approach for thousands of potential new participants in our community.

The rigors of motoring along across the southern narrows of the Bay of Campeche — no radar coverage, without even a squawk code — didn't leave me with the concentration needed to relate what an exciting idea this could be. But now back in the good old USA, where I seldom see a government aviation official, let alone pay them in cash to fly, I should be able to help you fully understand what has so excited me.

For now, this thought keeps coming back to me: How could I have had it so wrong?


January 8
1630 Z
1308 msl
level, my office desk, midway between ICT and
AAO

Here a Stamp, There a Stamp, Everywhere a Stamp, Stamp

In fact, to reduce any chances of further misperception, let me take a flyer with this suggestion: We who aviate should pay to send every member of every House and Senate committee, all those analysts and execs and Gucci Gulch residents, on an all-expense flying trip south of the border, to experience firsthand the same extraordinary service and human contact we enjoyed throughout our flying in Mexico as pilots and operators. Then they could experience the joys of dashing hither and yon among three or four or five different offices to meet numerous officials with paper to give or stamps to, well, stamp! Think of it, no more landings at unstaffed airports, or ones with a sole soul there to turn on the lights and pump the fuel.

We simply need to mimic Mexico, and, as it works out, most other nations, and make each movement of an airplane or the pilot's mouth, for that matter, an inspiration to paper and stamp, paper and stamp, paper and stamp. If it sounds rhythmic, that's because it is.

South of the border, pilots get to meet a dispatcher before they fly and another when they land. The first one gives them a many-lined form to file, in person, outlining all the usual stuff we now can file by phone, via the Internet, after we launch over our comm radios, or, if we simply must, in person at one of the FAA's fine Automated Flight Service Stations. But in Mexico, after visiting the dispatch office and personally filling out the form, we get to move along and meet someone else, the airport manager or, in Mexico's av-oriented lingo, the Aeropuerto Comandancia. His Jose Hancock over his own stamp is needed before a return trip to the dispatch office for more stamps and signatures and the eventual filing of your flight plan for the trip. Good stuff we just don't get to do under our current system. Oh, yeah, as a show of our support for general aviation in Mexico, the Comandancia at each airport took a few score pesos off our hands, presumably in the interest of lightening our payload and easing our trip as a result.

For a Few Pesos More

And now that it's time for fuel, SURPRISE! We get another form and stamp in trade for a few pesos more than the pesos for the petrol. Some of those few extra pesos cover the landing, assessed per liter of fuel, and then a few more pesos for the flight planning and tower and weather briefing. I swear, if it weren't for those few pesos more, we would have flown off feeling terribly guilty that we got all that service for a pittance of pesos per liter.

But after adding a fee here, a stamp there, a few pesos here and few pesos more there, well, it worked in our favor. With each departure, we became slightly lighter and more nimble than we were before the landing. And you know how critical weight-and-balance considerations are for us pilots. I personally appreciated the favor.

Think of how well such a deal would work up here in the U.S. Trade in a dozen or so 50-, 20- and 10-peso notes or the equivalent in Uncle Sam's greenbacks and get back one, two, three, four, forms and receipts. I swear, those folks routinely relieved us of 1,500, 1,600, even 1,800 pesos per stop — as much as $200 U.S. — including those fuelings of a whopping 35, 36 gallons at a time. You do the math. For as high as $5.30 per gallon, we were able to support far more folks at both the airport and beyond, all of them interested in monitoring our progress in getting to our destination and lightening our load along the way.

Does this sound great, or what?

Miles and Miles of Pretty Files of Our Flight-Filing's Fruit

Back up in the frugal 50 states, the aviation environment does seem to fall far short of its potential. Right now, we pay only a score or more pennies on each gallon of avgas or turbine juice and don't get to make multiple mandatory visits to meet warm, friendly new folks representing our nation's aviation infrastructure. No — now it's nearly anonymous, what with the separation standards that go with remote-filing technologies like telephones and radios and computers. Sure, it seems convenient; but is it really neighborly or family-friendly? We're missing out on all those potential jobs and the ripple-effect positions for no good reason — except for favoring simplicity and stinginess.

Think about it for a minute. How many people does it take to handle some simple fuel or ticket tax when all folks have to do is pay it at the pump or ticket counter? And do you hear the airlines carping about the opportunity to create all those new jobs in their own ranks and at DOT? Don't you think they enjoy the special relationship that grows out of spending millions each year so that thousands of people can work to tell a handful earning peanut-level government salaries where all those billions in revenues came from?

The problem with trying to establish such a system for running the FAA and ATC and tracking and routing and briefings begins with the lack of Flight Service Stations. The trend for nearly two decades has been reducing their numbers. Yet, here's another example of a short-sighted idea — with the old FSS network, we'd already have hundreds of places to hand over money for forms and the fledgling bureaucracy needed to spend money tracking the money. Instead, we'll need to either increase the FSS numbers again, designate an entirely new population of people to wield those stamps and forms at all the existing airports, or, simplest of all, restrict pilots to landing only at places where the crews already exist to push all that paper.

But the excitement and opportunities won't end at the airport, either, folks. Remember the nerve system of any burgeoning bureaucracy is its paperwork pipeline. With all those folks filing and signing and stamping all those miles and miles of pretty files of our flight-filing's fruit, we'd need to expand FAA employment to include new people to handle all those forms coming in from the field.

And new folks in the regions, because you can't have a successful paper pipeline with only one, simple, straight-line system. Don't believe me? Ask any Member of Congress ever queried about campaign finance issues. If the lawmaker can't wiggle and shake and twist and turn like a honeybee giving directions to the hive in a Disney documentary, then the lawmaker was appointed to his or her current position.

So, even those folks usually carping about "Big Guvment'' would have to come around a bit to be sure all the airports in the home district got all the form-filing, stamp-inking employees needed to generate the forms, plus others to examine those forms and send them on to counterparts in each regional office, where another count and accounting would precede the forms' continuing journey to the FAA at 800 Independence, maybe even on the Nassif Building where DOT Secretaries could delight in the additions to their own staffing levels so they could better audit the FAA Headquarters' input before forwarding those same files and audits and accountings over the Office of Management and Budget, so that members of Congress and senators could ask for all the forms they need to be sure that their districts' own slice of loin meets USDA standards for pork.

An Airway to a New Millennium

Of course, some in both houses of Congress have long advocated similar changes, but to no avail, thanks to the obstructive nature of lawmakers who naively believe that smaller and simpler should rule. But it's my belief that these folks simply never had the opportunity to see what potential exists just across the Rio Grande. Had they flown along with us between December 27 and January 4, they could have experienced the awe-inspiring efficiency of an airport official generating a new piece of formware using the environmentally-friendly hardware of a 50-year-old Olivetti manual typewriter, not to mention the nearly lost art form of recycling heavily-used carbon paper to help render a slightly legible original into a totally unintelligible duplicate.

Only in a fee-for-service environment could lawmakers exert the standard-setting controls that can only exist when aviating is restricted to times and places where multiple points of required contact can be fulfilled so the requisite reams of pulp can flow to the bureaucratic apogee inside the Capitol Beltway.

And even if Congress and supporters could come up with a way to streamline and automate the forms-filing, stamp-slinging and cash-ringing of many airports into single focal points, such short-sighted solutions still won't eliminate the need for multiple layers of audits and reviews and accountings that just naturally flow downstream from the source points.

Along the way, someone may even propose to computerize the whole of this new stratum of government and industry collaboration. And even that has the potential to swell employment ranks and shrink wallets, since some consultants, a few focus groups and a bailout expert will be needed just to decide whether to program the system in DOS 2.1.1 or Windows 3.1.

Finally, only where each airplane stop involves at least a half-dozen contact points will demands for skilled aviation personnel rise and create more employment opportunities in aviation. Maybe new degree programs will follow.

Think of it, right after courses on how to win a congressional campaign without spending large on aviation fees, there could be course in re-inking stamp pads, creative stamp signing, and, for the truly ambitious, a master's program in stamping and signing simultaneously and upside down — and one-handedly counting out change in the process.

Think I'm kidding? Then trundle yourself and a plane of open-minded friends south across the border, and take plenty of cash. 'Cause at the airports we visited, the fee collectors didn't take American Express or Discover, MasterCard, Visa, library card or any card. Dollars were more welcome than pesos, and there was always change in pesos. But these truly lovely folks did take plenty of time and give back plenty of paper, paper enough that we're thinking about going again, soon. We think one more trip will give us enough to paper our hangar and there's something about the off-white of all those forms that goes so well with the paint on our Comanche.

Besides, maybe we'll get some more great ideas on how Senators and Members of Congress can enjoy these same advantages by the next time they have to fly the home state on a private plane to get re-elected.

It's a brave new world — south of the border, at least.