Class Warfare in the Skies

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Something that's always struck me as odd about this whole user fee thing is that it's one of those rare political issues where the proletariats have come to the rescue of the bourgeoisie.

When then-FAA Administrator Marion Blakey first started speaking openly about the need to change the way the FAA was funded with user fees, no one knew what, specifically, she meant so the leaders of the major GA groups did a smart thing. The got together, put their hands in the middle and became the half-dozen or so Musketeers of free and open skies for GA. On the day the coalition was formed, I remember asking the question in a conference call with those leaders. Is this an attempt, I asked, to divide and conquer GA by pitting puddle jumpers against Gulfstream owners?

No, they said they didn't think so and as far as they were concerned it was all for one and one for all anyway. It soon became clear that the Administration, fearful of the lobbying power of the 400,000 to 500,000 AOPA/EAA members, had, quite remarkably, decided to target business aviation (and a hefty percentage of their base) to get the ball rolling. The $25 per leg fee on turbine aircraft that resulted was a lame attempt to establish a collection system that would have had every pilot in the U.S. eventually writing checks to the FAA. Regardless of your politics, you have to admit this is an interesting dynamic which may have taken the bait-and-switch to a high art and left the general aviation community divided, fighting with each other and ill-equipped to take on whatever the next battle might be. Instead, everyone gets what they want except for increased fuel taxes; nobody really wants that and the necessarily disparate factions of GA get to shake hands and raise a toast to defeating the dreaded user fees. In the end, it had little to do with the political clout of the mass of pilots or any kind of fear on the part of the Administration in upsetting that relatively small segment of society. The FAA's own meltdown on airline inspections and the controller situation made user fees small potatoes in the grand scheme. They were easy to ditch, while Senators and Congressmen on both sides line up to be the first to "fix" the FAA.

Still, a win is a win, and there should be some celebration of that. But before they break out the good stuff, GA leaders might consider reaching for a diet soda instead. Everyone from homebuilders to BBJ owners will need to be in good shape for the next round because chances are the FAA's own difficulties won't come to the rescue the next time.

Next time? Aren't user fees dead? Not by a long shot. And assuming (which might be a stretch) that the Democrats have better strategic planning than the FAA seems to have, there may be an administration in place that could be very happy to dump the whole mess of "fixing" the FAA on the "rich" who fly privately, whatever form that takes. And that would be the ultimate irony.

Comments (16)

There are some fees that I could see as reasonable. For instance, annual aircraft registration fees perhaps something innocuous like $50. If I parallel the fees I pay to drive my car, truck, motorcycle & etc. I don't think it would horrible if the same scheme was applied to aircraft. How about a small surchage on annual medicals, base upon certifcate level and medical class if you want to get fancy. A simple approach would be if you're a private pilot with class 3 medical the surchage payable to the FAA modernization fund is $10. Class 2 is $20, Class 1 is $30. It sort parallel the probable services this pilot is going to need.

The trick, I think, is to make fees small enough so "Joe Pilot/Aircraft Owner" can afford the fees and keep flying. I don't support paying for services al carte at all. Create a "Renewal" of pilot certificates is also a place I see we could add a revenue stream that would be relatively painless and similar to driving.

Posted by: JEFFREY WATSON | April 28, 2008 9:26 AM    Report this comment

The problem with any fee in any segment of GA as a whole is it sets a precedent. Once the fee door is opened it will never shut, the fees will only increase. I've got buddies who all think flying is "too expensive" and at the same time AOPA is asking why the pilot population is declining. IMHO it's the incorrect perception of the cost. Why further reduce the pilot population and weaken what minor clout we have on the hill by giving potential owners another reason to stay away? I agree with this article. As a COMMUNITY we must, absolutely must, stick together. We cannot afford to have the "at least it doesn't affect ME" attitude when it comes to user fees. We should take the downtime we have now to define a defensive strategy for the next time this happens. We can also use this time to press an offensive PR campaign about the realities of flying. I don't know how to do this in a way that reaches joe-public but all they hear regarding GA comes from half witted talking heads after a GA crash or a gear extension failure. How can we work to change this?

Posted by: a b | April 28, 2008 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Class envy causes a lot of our problems. After every accident, especially one that hurts people on the ground, the posters come out talking about how we need to reign in all these "rich playboy adrenaline junkies" before they rain death from the skies. There's two main emotions at work here. Many people are just plain afraid of flying. They fear aviation and don't understand it. For these people, something feared = something bad. The second part is envy. They see GA pilots as nothing but "rich playboy adrenaline junkies". Who cares how much they get taxed and regulated? We all know it's not true, but most people don't. Class envy often leads to bad govt policies. Pilots need to take initiative to fight these perceptions. Most of it is local. Get acquainted with local journalists and take them up for rides. Tell them about Young Eagles, Angel Flight and Civil Air Patrol. Take them to AOPA safety meetings and fly-in breakfasts so they can meet real GA pilots. If you're on an internet message board and you see people attack GA, then take the time to post a rebuttal. Not a personal attack, but a response using facts. Message boards often have a bunch of loonies, but there's plenty of reasonable people there too. How about treating new folks with respect when they start poking around the airport looking to start flying lessons? I've seen some would-be pilots get pretty shabby treatment at FBOs and flight schools. Bottom line, we all have to take responsibility for GA's image.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | April 28, 2008 12:27 PM    Report this comment

User fees are the FAA's attempt to initiate a revenue stream that is not tied to Congressional approval. I believe their ultimate goal is to sell off the Agency and its considerable assets to a large corporation and they need to make it financially attractive.

Posted by: Jennifer Carr | April 28, 2008 3:06 PM    Report this comment

I think Jennifer is getting close to the truth there. It probably won't be the whole FAA they they end up selling off, just that part that provides the ATC service. The FSS has been pretty much already privatized.

This has already happened in Canada when the ATC, FSS, nav aids, publications and more were sold to Nav Canada in 1996.

If this happens in the USA you will find the new company will be responsive to the airlines as their big paying customers and that other airspace users will not be a priority, unless they pay a lot of money for the attention they want.

North of the 49th parallel we have already made that mistake. Please learn from us.

Posted by: Adam Hunt | April 28, 2008 4:34 PM    Report this comment

Well suprise,suprise sports fans,the replacement for user fees is already of the drawing board, in the form of a annual re-registration fee that could be as much as $250.00 a year if not more. You need to comment on Docket No. FAA-2008-0188, Notice No. 08-02 before May 28, 2008 or be prepared to open your wallet wide. This proposed rule has already been published in the federal register as of Febuary 28,2008. This is under the guise of updating the aircraft registery. Seems to me there is something in place to do this, It's called the tri=annual registration form. Anyone that thinks user fees are dead dosn't know your government!

Posted by: Al Dyer | April 28, 2008 7:40 PM    Report this comment

I'm perfectly willing to consider user fees...if the system I'm paying for is what is needed for 100 something knot airplanes with as many as four souls aboard. ATC circa 1940 would probably do just fine. ATC 21st century making certain that two jumbos with 400 souls on board, each, keeping track of their Mach numbers, don't do a Tenerife in the sky should be paid for by the jumbo users, thank you. ATC costs what it does because of them not us.

Posted by: FRANK NATOLI | April 29, 2008 7:55 PM    Report this comment

That is exactly what we ran into in Canada. The system you get is the one the airlines want, not what suits small aircraft, especially those that fly VFR-only.

Up here we have been paying in the range of 70 dollars per year in each of the past ten years, which makes GA's contribution to Nav Canada about 0.08% of their budget of around $1.2B. We get about 0.08% of their attention as a result.

If you want to pay fees and have a real say in what service GA gets and the quality of those services, then GA will have to pay for half of the budget and not let the airlines dominate the financial picture. In Canada that would mean 25,244 aircraft (March 2008) would contribute about $600M per year or just under $24,000 per aircraft, per year.

That is the level of fees that will get you a system responsive to GA.

Offering to pay $50 or $100 per year makes you a token contributor and subject to endless demands from the airlines for fee increases to pay your "real cost of using the system".

ATC fees for small aircraft are really an "all or nothing game" as far as the service provider and the airlines will be concerned.

Posted by: Adam Hunt | April 30, 2008 5:21 AM    Report this comment

I don't have a problem with fees per se. The issue to me seems to be who pays for what and how.

If you're using class B airports, flying ILS approaches even in good weather, and requiring ATC for all flights, you should be appropriately charged. The same applies if you fly the pattern at an untowered strip in class G airspace and never use ATC. An appropriate charge for services used should apply.

The airlines, sensing competition, seem to want to use anything, including ATC fees, to create barriers to competition. While I can't blame them, I don't agree with such perversion of the system of taxation.

I also feel few would argue with paying for what you use.

Posted by: FILL CEE | May 1, 2008 1:12 AM    Report this comment

As for registration, that's just another tax. The arguments should be about whether or not such a tax is appropriate, not whether or not the registration database needs cleaning. The latter can be done without requiring a tax. Similarly, taxes can be imposed without any registration.

Posted by: FILL CEE | May 1, 2008 1:14 AM    Report this comment

"few would argue with paying for what you use"

I guess that would make me one of the few. By your logic, if I am flying the LOC-22 into my home airport KCDW, talking to New York Approach, I would be charged X dollars. But if I am flying the ILS into nearby Class B KEWR, talking to literally the same guy at New York Approach, sequenced the same way, I would be charged X*Y dollars. What exactly am I "using"? A reasonable man would say the services of the ATC fellow, hence an approach into KCDW should incur the same charges as an approach into KEWR.

Give us user fees and give us one more nail in the coffin of general aviation.

Posted by: FRANK NATOLI | May 1, 2008 6:22 AM    Report this comment

"I'm perfectly willing to consider user fees...if the system I'm paying for is what is needed for 100 something knot airplanes with as many as four souls aboard. ATC circa 1940 would probably do just fine. ATC 21st century making certain that two jumbos with 400 souls on board, each, keeping track of their Mach numbers, don't do a Tenerife in the sky should be paid for by the jumbo users, thank you. ATC costs what it does because of them not us."

So I'm assuming you never, ever fly on our airliners? GA may have won this round but BANK on it...user fees will happen sooner than later. Then every user will pay their fair share for occupying space on the screen and some users will no longer get a near-free ride through the system. Sure "we" use the system the most but eventually "you" will have to pay to play. Its all about the business to "them"

Posted by: Clint Tolbert | May 5, 2008 7:05 AM    Report this comment

"So I'm assuming you never, ever fly on our airliners?"

That may be the inference you chose to draw, but that is not what I said. I said, very clearly, that an ATC system designed to support airliners and costing as much as it does to support them, should be paid for by the airliners that need such an expensive system. General aviation does not, and since it is not offered a low cost alternative, it should not be financially crucified by a system designed to support the airliners. The system is at least sixty years old, and it was never necessary to crucify general aviation. Now is not the time to start.

Posted by: FRANK NATOLI | May 5, 2008 7:24 AM    Report this comment

The problem with user fees is that Congress doesn't guarantee that they will be spent on aviation-related items. I am a patent lawyer, and for years after the PTO became a user-fee-funded agency, Congress kept diverting user fees to other, non-patent purposes.

Posted by: Joe Hosteny | May 7, 2008 3:16 PM    Report this comment

In an age where elections are won or lost over a hundred thousand votes, I don't expect to see users fees pop up any time soon.

If the ATA et al had been successful in dividing us, it would be a very different story.

Posted by: Nate Griffin | May 14, 2008 7:55 PM    Report this comment

with the way fuel prices are skyrocketing, can anyone even fill up their planes, let alone fly them?

Posted by: MICHAEL SULLIVAN | May 16, 2008 10:19 AM    Report this comment

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