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.