User Fees: More Blather

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In parallel with the political campaign season comes aviation’s annual rite of spring: the battle over user fees. No sooner than did the Obama administration’s proposed budget come off the press than my inbox filled with a half dozen press releases from the alphabets decrying users fees. By now, I think they can just change the date and leave the rest of the prose intact from last year’s release. Welcome to the center of the universe of your own special interest group.The Obama administration is proposing a $100 per flight fee for aircraft that operate on flight plans in controlled airspace, with an exemption for piston aircraft. This proposed fee is in keeping with the administration’s fairness in taxation and, by another name, it’s just a tax-the-rich ploy aimed at operators of business jets. Everyone knows it’s more political window dressing than good public policy. It might play well in the hustings with the freckled-necked masses who saw their 401Ks tanked by the financial meltdown, remembering as they do how many banks operate bizjets.Setting aside the politics, are user fees ever justified? Why do we squeal when they’re broached? The citizenry shells out for all kinds of user fees, for toll roads and bridges, for entrance to state and national parks, for license plate fees, for corporate filing. The list is long if not endless. The argument that aviation is unique because fuel taxes fund the system is bogus. Road fuel taxes fund roads, too. So this isn’t a matter of whether there should be a bar at all, but where to put it. You can argue that user fees are discriminatory and depressive, but so is paying $12 to cross the George Washington Bridge.For me, the principle at stake on this particular user fee is creeping government intrusion but, more important, just flat out inefficiency in how government services are delivered, especially by the FAA. Who can make a convincing argument that the FAA spends the money it already gets wisely and that more revenue is justified? No show of hands there, I guess. If I had confidence that the agency spent its money prudently, I might be less knee-jerk myself on user fees. (See this week’s story story on FAA performance on the next big boondoggle that has a 50-50 chance of running off the rails: NextGen.)Having said all this, I’ll concede that it can be trying to be a member in good standing of the aviation special interest group because the standard refrain of any special interest group is…don’t cut our funding, cut someone else’s because we are…special. Exhibit A is the Air Line Pilot’s Association opposing the proposed cuts of $36 million from the air marshal program and another $13 million from the Federal Flight Deck Officer program. Both are worthy programs, I’m sure. But the reason these things became so inflated by government dollars in the first place is that we allow ourselves to succumb to the perpetual grip of 9/11 fear. Good people have used and continue to use this fear to maintain the budget momentum that sustains their little fiefdoms, which are necessarily more important than the other guys’ fiefdoms.There are also proposed cuts in airport capital programs which we in GA are likely to argue shouldn’t be touched. But I question how necessary and cost effective some of these improvements really are. In GA, we tend to never see an airport project we don’t like and one that isn’t for the greater good of aviation. It seems as though that AIP money is there for the asking.For Exhibit B, I’d submit our neighboring airport, Charlotte County, which has proven unusually adept in navigating the government grant business. Several readers of this blog have pointed out that this airport, best described as semi-sleepy, now has a 12-story control tower worthy of a busy metro airport. It’s the highest point in the county and probably one of the highest in Florida. State and local funds went into it, but the feds are paying the contract to run it. The airport also got a couple of million bucks for ramp improvements in hopes of attracting an airline or two in an overserved market where Sarasota and Fort Myers are struggling to stay competitive.I’m of two minds about this. It’s a good example of government investment in basic aviation infrastructure that in fact spurs growth. At Charlotte County, there are already short-term gains, despite the critics. Traffic and enplanements are up and the local government claims measureable economic benefits. All good.But the airlines serving Charlotte County-Allegiant and Direct Air-are the sort of carriers that tend to come and go like the weather, jumping from one market to the next looking for a way to make profits on cheap seats. (Direct Air, for instance, used to be in St. Pete, but pulled out to go elsewhere.) Some cities just want the service so badly, they’re willing to spend anything to have someone come in and provide it. But any airline flying seats around for $59 is automatically suspect in my book.In normal times, I’m all for this sort local/federal government spending on infrastructure. It’s smart business and smart government. Build it and they will come writ large. But these aren’t normal times. As a nation, we are spending far more than we take in, the Congress won’t raise taxes nor will it nor the administration nor any of a million special interests, support meaningful budget cuts. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in nearly three years. At some point, this irrational idiocy is going to have to end, probably from the grassroots up, not the other way around. (I’m sure you’ve heard something like this: “Well, it’s just $2 million. If we don’t get it, someone else will.)Call me crazy, but for my piece of the pie, I’d slash federal spending by a fixed percentage across the board. Everyone and everything takes a hit. Pick a number: 2 percent this year, 5 percent next year. Rinse, repeat. If that means I won’t be landing on an improved runway for five years, so be it. If any of us think we’re going to solve our larger fiscal problems without giving up something, we’re suffering a kind of collective dementia that’s normal for Greece but in the U.S., exceptional, even for special interests.In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll discuss one aspect of this in our own little corner of the universe: How the FAA’s Aeronav division may be missing an opportunity to actually save us and the government some money.