Pay as You Go, Euro-Style

Will European-style user fees make their way across the Atlantic? Let's hope not.

August 1, 1998

On June 5, general aviation dodged another bullet, at least temporarily. That was the day that the House of Representatives rejected a 1999 fiscal year budget proposal that would have saddled American pilots with a cool $37.7 billion — that's billion — in aviation user fees. This move sent a strong message to the Clinton administration, the authors of the proposal. The rationale behind this proposal is tied in with the tax-cutting mood now so prevalent across the land. Currently, most aviation-related expenses are absorbed by the aviation trust fund — the one we all pay into when we buy avgas or Jet A. If we charge user fees, goes the administration's argument, then the Federal Aviation Administration could be run more like a private business; we could free up $6 billion in general fund revenues currently targeted for FAA operations and use that money for selected "higher priority" initiatives. In short, soak those who use the airspace system.

Unfortunately, the logic is flawed. Transportation — be it by big airplane or small, small car, or large truck — benefits all aspects of the public sector. Singling out users would drive up costs and prices of goods and services, plus require an expensive bureaucracy to collect, monitor, and enforce any additional user fees. Moreover, the budget proposal would have transferred the cost for government use of the airpsace system — along with the costs of safety, security, and certification regulations — to users. On top of that, user fees would also mean less accountability to taxpayers: Congress would lose much of its oversight capability. If Congress doesn't write the checks, it can't employ the power of the purse.

In the end, user fees would deal another body blow to pilots and manufacturers — something we don't need now that our booming economy has finally given us some hope for general aviation's future.

To understand how user fees can suppress general aviation activity you need only look to Europe. There, pilots face fees that Americans can't even imagine. Fees so voluminous and all-pervasive that the face of flying in Europe is molded by them. They make flying run-of-the-mill piston singles and twins truly a rich man's sport. Those who can't afford the fees are drawn to ultralights, powered parachutes, and paragliding as lower-cost alternatives. A broad network of flying clubs lets pilots lower some of the costs of flying, and those lucky enough to work for large companies may even have some of their flying costs paid for out of a company-operated recreational fund.

But even those who can afford to fly avoid large commercial airports in Europe like the plague, lest they be nailed with hundreds of dollars' worth of landing fees. Consequently, most flying is based out of smaller airports well in the periphery of major metropolitan areas. Some of them are grass strips. And most flights are short hops to nearby airports.

There's more. To rent an aging Cessna Skyhawk in France will run you about $130 per hour, and that's not counting any instructor's fees for checkouts. Want a newer model? Fork over around $200 an hour. Have a yen to fly a Cessna 182RG for some retractable time? That'll be about $290 per hour in Germany. You say that you want multi time? A beat-up Piper Seneca II in Germany can go for $600 an hour.

Then there's the cost of fuel. Prices are all over the place, of course, but you can count on spending approximately $5 per gallon for avgas in France, and maybe a dollar more per gallon in Germany. Fuel prices in England aren't so bad; they run in the neighborhood of $2.50 per gallon. However, those planning on tanking up at Geneva, Switzerland, beware. The last time I checked, avgas there was going for $6.20 per gallon. Of course, fuel is metered in liters in Europe, so the immediate psychological shock can be extremely severe. You look at the price ticking upwards on the fueling gauge and, to your horror, see the numbers racing up at 4.09 or so Swiss francs per liter (Geneva), or 3.60 Deutsch marks per liter (Germany), or whatever, and heave a sigh of resignation.

To these high costs, add those user fees. If the operating costs (rental, fuel) put you on the ledge, then European user fees will make you jump right off. Instead of nickel-and-diming you to death, Euro-fees can pluck you clean in $50 or $100 increments — or more.

Let's start with your pilot certificate. In Switzerland — one of the most expensive nations for GA flying — the cost of earning a private certificate can hit 15,000 to 20,000 Swiss francs, or about $9,900 to $13,200. Price of a French commercial certificate with an instrument rating? About $10,000 to $20,000.

This explains why so many aspiring European pilots come to the United States to learn to fly. Here, they spend a fraction of the cost. Even when figuring in room and board, you still come out well below European prices.

It used to be that Europeans could earn their American pilot certificates and ratings here, then return home and receive their native countries' equivalents under terms of a reciprocity agreement. But no more. Now, for example, Switzerland requires additonal training (to the tune of several thousand dollars) in-country before foreign-earned certificates are fully legitimate.

Landing fees are commonplace at all but the most remote, smallish, towerless airports in Europe. And sometimes even they aren't exempt. To land at a grass strip in Switzerland, you need to obtain prior permission, as well as pay a $12 landing fee.

The average landing fee (for light airplanes, that is) seems to run up to about $50 at most airports on the continent but some, such as Nice, France ($109); Dusseldorf, Germany ($146); and Gibraltar ($125) really stand out. The prize for the worst landing fees in the world must surely go to Japan's Narita Airport ($3,500), or maybe Taiwan's Chiang Kai Shek International Airport ($7,000).

Landing fees are just the beginning of the user-fee hassle in Europe. You want to shoot touch and goes? Then you may have to pay a landing fee each time your wheels touch the runway. For this reason, many instructors and pilots perform low approaches instead of touch and goes or landings to full stops during practice sessions.

Airplanes judged to be too noisy — as determined by both local and national authorities — can be assessed an extra fee, on top of the usual landing fee. Some airports deal with the problem by simply denying access to airplanes deemed too noisy, or limiting the times they can take off and/or land. This is a problem that seems to affect airports in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria the most, but the groundswell of opinion against "noisy" light singles and twins seems to be growing all over Europe. To avoid any noise charges, some owners opt to install special mufflers and exhaust pipes. This externally mounted equipment runs along the underside of the cowling, making the airplane look like some kind of airplane/hot rod hybrid.

Night flight brings the prospect of more fees. The St. Geoirs Airport near Grenoble, France, charges 168.31 francs (about $26) each time it turns on its runway lights. That's $26 for the landing and another $26 for the takeoff, should you be passing through St. Geoirs at night. Other airports in Europe, I'm told, also charge for runway lighting.

Communications fees can also be levied. For example, I know that the communications fees across the North Atlantic route to Europe can run upwards of $175. This charge is intended to cover the cost of two-way radio and navigation services while traversing the ocean. On the continent, communication fees for talking on approach control or tower frequencies are usually built into the landing fees.

Then there are the fees assessed by Eurocontrol. Eurocontrol is a multilateral air traffic control agency consisting of 27 participant nations. This agency provides air traffic control services in the en route environment and bills for its services through a central office in Brussels, Belgium. Eurocontrol bills aircraft owners and operators for its services under a complicated and often baffling set of rules and formulas. These rules and formulas were concocted by an equally complicated and baffling multinational European bureaucracy, so they're almost impossible to thoroughly understand.

But don't take my word for it. Eurocontrol uses aircraft weight and distance factors, among other elements, to arrive at its fees. The weight factor, the Eurocontrol rules state, "shall be the square root of the quotient obtained by dividing by fifty (50) the number of metric tons in the maximum certified takeoff weight of the aircraft as set out in the certificate of airworthiness, the flight manual, or any other official document."

The distance factor is another piece of work. Its formula goes like this, and I'm not kidding:

"1. The distance factor (di) shall be obtained by dividing by 100 the number of kilometers in the great circle distance between: the aerodrome of departure within, or the point of entry into, the airspace of the Flight Information Region falling within the competence of a Contracting State, and the aerodrome of the first destination within, or the point of exit from, that airspace.

"These entry and exit points shall occur where the air route crosses the lateral limits of the said airspace as set out in the national aeronautical publications. The air route taken is that most frequently used between two aerodromes or, where this cannot be determined, the shortest route.

"The routes most frequently used shall be reviewed annually, so as to take account of any modifications in route structure or traffic conditions.

"2. The distance to be taken into account shall be reduced by 20 kilometers for each takeoff and for each landing on the territory of the Contracting State ...."

I could go on, but you get the idea. In Europe, the bureaucrats rule the skies with an iron fist, and woe be the pilot who tries, American-style, to be overly assertive or cajoling in his dealings with Eurocontrollers. At times, it may easily be perceived that pilots exist to serve the system, rather than the other way around. And transgressors feel the sting of enforcement more quickly in Europe.

Formulas aside, I've heard a rule of thumb about Eurocontrol fees for turbine-powered airplanes: they work out to about $80 an hour. To cross western Europe will run you about $1,000.

Is there any way around Eurocontrol fees? Yes. Those flying under VFR are exempt, and so are airplanes with maximum takeoff weights less than 4,409 pounds. So light airplanes currently do not pay for IFR services — for the time being, anyway. Eurocontrol would dearly love to charge all airspace users for IFR handling, but the fact of the matter is that their computers aren't up to the task of keeping track of additional traffic volume. In the future, though, Eurocontrol may easily build both the political will and the computer clout to charge any and all IFR traffic.

Airplanes that take off and land at the same airport without any intermediate stops are also free of Eurocontrol — but their pilots still face the landing fees.

Are there other user fees? You bet. Handling fees are one. These are levied at some airports, and are usually charges for something as simple as escorting you to the terminal building, customs clearance, or other administrative facility. Last but not least, there are fees for telephone weather briefings. That can run around $1 per minute to talk to a briefer. To avoid this, many European pilots subscribe to a fax service to obtain weather information or make an in-person visit to a meteorological office, in which case there is no charge for the briefing.

To take liberties with the old saying, it's nice to visit Europe, but it may not be particularly nice to fly there — at least not with your name on the billing address. You fill that in on your ICAO flight plan form.

AOPA's political arm in Europe — the European region of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA) — performs valuable work in lobbying the European parliament, Eurocontrol, and other local and national agencies for reduced costs and improved airport access. It's an uphill battle, and the European AOPAs have their work cut out for them.

IAOPA consists of 46 participating indigenous national AOPAs, all of which meet in regional and national assemblies to formulate strategies for advancing the cause of general aviation in the international arena. Of those 46, 25 nations are European. The next world assembly of IAOPA will take place in Palm Springs, California, from October 18 to 22, 1998 — just in advance of AOPA's annual Expo.

Prophets of gloom have always pointed to the European general aviation scene as a portent of what's in store for the United States. The House rejection of user fees has certainly helped to ruin that analogy — for the time being. We already have a means of raising aviation funds firmly in place. It's fed by our fuel taxes, as mentioned earlier. Of course, the European nations also levy taxes on aviation fuels. But those monies go right into their general funds — along with healthy income taxes and the value-added taxes attached to every consumer purchase — to help pay for the generous social services and benefits that Europeans enjoy.

So far, with your association taking the leadership position, we've been able to preserve our relatively liberal, low-cost policies. The future of American general aviation depends on preserving them. Keep that in mind the next time the issue of user fees pops up in Congress. And there will be a next time. The issue isn't dead, not by a long shot.

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