The State of General Aviation

Government: Friends and Foes

June 1, 2005

Governments and politics impact general aviation in innumerable ways

In a recent survey, eight of the top 10 AOPA member concerns regarding general aviation were issues relating to government entities. The number-one concern among AOPA members is the closure of general aviation airports. While the rate of airport closures is slowing, each field plays an important part in the nation's aviation infrastructure. The possibility of federal user fees, taxes and user fees at the state level, the quality and availability of air traffic services, and airspace restrictions are just a few of the other member concerns that are impacted by governments. Whether it's Washington, D.C., or Wellington, Kansas, governments and their actions affect how, where, and when we can fly.

In that same survey, nearly two out of three members rated the political environment for general aviation as "not so good." One in three called it "good" and just 1 percent ranked it "excellent."

Airport issues for the most part have their roots at the local level, which is the reason that AOPA launched its Airport Support Network in 1998. Today, some 1,700 volunteers around the country act as local eyes and ears, alerting AOPA headquarters staff to issues that could jeopardize an airport.

53 percent of AOPA members surveyed said they believe Congress views general aviation negatively.

Andy Cebula, AOPA's senior vice president of government and technical affairs, reports that land use is a significant issue facing airports — such as improper zoning that allows residential communities to creep up to airport perimeters. Such zoning then leads to the next most common problem — noise. Finally, a newer issue has become more prevalent in the past few years: local community ballot issues. In these cases, local communities, usually out of ignorance about the importance of their local airports, attempt to pass ordinances that close the airports or restrict general aviation and the businesses that support it. For example, at Concord, California's Buchanan Field, which is located on some of the nation's most desirable and expensive real estate, a lone county supervisor carrying the water for a single real estate developer has proposed closing one of the nation's premier general aviation airports. It has taken the unified efforts of AOPA, local pilot groups, Concord's business community, and unprecedented bipartisan congressional support to shore up FAA's opposition to closing the airport.

Similarly, across the country near Tampa, the community surrounding Albert Whitted Airport attempted to pass local laws that would have closed the airport, turning half of it into a park and building high-rise apartments on the other half. AOPA and its Airport Support Network volunteer for the airport weighed in and ultimately won as the community voted to keep the airport open in perpetuity.

At Horace William Airport in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the threat was internal as the University of North Carolina sought to close its airport in favor of other development. Here it took AOPA working not only with local pilots but also the school's own medical emergency flight squad to convince state lawmakers to pass special legislation preventing the airport's closing.

A rift in the general aviation family is the newest phenomena affecting general aviation airport operations. Some larger general aviation facilities have decided they would rather exclusively serve turbine corporate operators — to the detriment of lighter airplanes. At locations such as Van Nuys, Santa Monica, and Palomar, California; Teterboro, New Jersey; and Stuart, Florida, piston-powered airplanes are being given the cold shoulder while the fixed-base operators roll out the red carpet for the jet set. Expansive new ramps and facilities for jets leave no room for light airplanes. AOPA, with support from the FAA, often has to remind airport operators about the fair and equal access requirements for publicly funded airports. At Van Nuys, the community finally recognized the value of general aviation and is setting aside parts of the airport just for light airplanes.

Going to Washington

While airport issues tend to be local, the FAA, as the ultimate holder of the purse strings for airport improvements, holds much sway at least when it comes to airports that accept federal funding, as most public-use airports do.

"There is an increasing gap between the operating costs of the FAA, our capital needs, our funding for airports, and trust fund revenue," says FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.

But, like many government entities, the FAA is facing a funding challenge of its own. While general aviation supports FAA operations through the federal excise tax we pay on fuel, the airlines primarily support the system through a tax on tickets passed on to the consumer. With the rock-bottom airline ticket prices of the past few years, the revenue from the ticket tax has plummeted. As a result, revenue flowing into the aviation trust fund — which is used to fund the majority of FAA operations and capital improvements — has not grown at projected levels at the same time the agency is attempting to modernize and improve its services.

In an exclusive interview with AOPA Pilot for this article, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey made it clear that a change in funding must occur. "There is an increasing gap between the operating costs of the FAA, our capital needs, our funding for airports, and trust fund revenue," said the administrator. "The way the trust fund is set up, of course, it relies very heavily on ticket taxes, and as time has gone on and the price of a ticket has fallen, which is a great benefit to consumers, it obviously has taken its toll on the aviation trust fund, and we think all of that has to be looked at now."

Noting that the current legislation outlining FAA funding expires in 2007, Blakey acknowledges that something must be done soon. "We all need to pull together to look at the way the system is funded now and determine if that is the best way going forward. Certainly we feel very strongly that it only makes sense to look at the actual costs of the system and to assure that there is a stable and responsible revenue stream coming to support those actual costs."

Acknowledging general aviation's role in funding the system, the administrator could not rule out a change. "As you know, the general aviation community provides support to the aviation trust fund through fuel taxes, as do other parts of the aviation community, and I think we have to look at it and see if that is the best way to support the services that are being required."

"We have thousands of small airports all around the country. I don't think that sealing these off, putting fences around them, and mandating extreme security measures are the solution," says chairman of the House aviation subcommittee Rep. John Mica.

Blakey in the past has said that pilots should not be charged user fees to access the flight service system, but the possibility of user fees for other air traffic services is a threat that AOPA continually works against. (See " AOPA Action: AOPA Prepares for Battle Over User Fees," page 16.) AOPA worked closely with the FAA to assure that FSS modernization would include metrics that promise performance standards. In a study completed early this year, the FAA determined that the best way to lower costs and improve service in the flight service system was to outsource it to a private company. Lockheed Martin won the contract and during the next year or so will be consolidating today's 58 stations in the Lower 48 states down to about 20 while it also installs modern systems that will allow pilots and briefers to share information over the Internet. The change in FSS operations could save some $2.2 billion over the next decade.

AOPA is also working with the FAA to help it reduce expenses in other ways, such as decommissioning underutilized ground-based navaids and looking at the feasibility of closing some control towers at night when traffic is low. "I'll say this, AOPA has been a good partner and very supportive of understanding that we absolutely have to bring the FAA's costs under control," said Blakey.

Headed to the Hill

Concerns about funding the FAA are not confined to Blakey's office at 800 Independence Avenue. Up on Capitol Hill, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, worries about that issue too. Like Blakey, he is looking for other ways to fund the agency. No one wants to say "user fees," but the threat of such fees is very much alive.

"In general aviation we really have to look at how we finance both the infrastructure and the services provided to GA. Some of our financing may be out of date," said Mica during a recent interview with AOPA Pilot. "One of the things we want to do is to make sure those who use these systems and facilities help pay for them. We also have to balance that with our federal requirements to have a sound aviation system as opposed to individual pieces. It's a dual responsibility. In an era of tight budgets as we've seen, with huge record deficits, we've got to look at who pays for what and how it is paid for. We need to modernize those fee systems...and pinch our pennies, but not to the detriment of safety or to the defiance of a good American aviation system.

"We have basically a user-financed system and we're going to have to continue that. Do I see the federal government taking on a larger share — probably not. Again, given the tremendous budget pressure we're under here in Washington."

Both Blakey and Mica agree that investments in technology, such as the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), will make the air traffic system more efficient, improve access, and potentially improve safety. But it comes at a cost, reminds the FAA administrator.

"I think the general aviation community should take stock of the fact that the satellite-based Wide Area Augmentation System is the most costly of the FAA's capital investments," said Blakey. "It's been a huge investment on the taxpayers' part that will, we believe, provide very substantial benefits to the general aviation community. Obviously we want to see that investment through so that in fact the approaches are out there and everyone is able to use those procedures well. We think it has huge safety benefits, as well as obviously access for pilots all over the country. So we believe Congress will continue to support it and we will certainly continue to see that investment through."

"We've got to assist in this transition and help people get to the new technology and make certain we stay on this course together," said Mica. "The transition is difficult. It can be costly for some in the short term. In the long term it makes a lot of sense. We have to stay on course for those changes."

Meanwhile, another threat to general aviation is overburdening it with unnecessary security regulations. Some have advocated for airline-level security for all general aviation airports — despite the fact that even the security agencies have said that general aviation airports do not need that level of security. Mica agrees. "We have thousands of small airports all around the country. I don't think that sealing these off, putting fences around them, and mandating extreme security measures are the solution," said the chairman. "I think everyone knows that you can probably load in an SUV or a U-Haul a much more dangerous quantity of explosives or biological or dangerous materials than you can in a small aircraft. We've got to look at a risk-based system, spend our money where it makes the most sense. We can't close off general and civil aviation in this country. We've got to focus back on what President Bush says. We've got to be able to go after terrorists and people who pose a threat. Let the rest of the country go about its normal way of life and let us continue to exercise our freedoms to fly, freedoms to get around our great country without becoming captives of terrorist threats. It's a risk-based system — a balanced system that we should see."

Despite the threat of closed airports, user fees, and a funding crisis, general aviation has seen growth in the past few years. Some of that growth can be attributed to accelerated-depreciation regulations that have allowed those who use aircraft for business purposes to write off an aircraft purchase expense over a much shorter period of time than they normally can. Under current law, the accelerated depreciation is available only on aircraft ordered before the end of 2004 and placed into service by the end of 2005. Some in the industry believe it should be extended — including Mica.

"I supported the accelerated depreciation. We should look at extension and expansion of some of those tax benefits," said Mica. "The U.S. isn't competing in a vacuum anymore. We've lost large segments of our aviation manufacturing capacity when we've had excessive liability, excessive taxation, excessive regulation. So we've got to look at the setting, the global market we're competing in. I strongly support any incentive we can provide to the manufacturing industry, and we'll continue to do that in the subcommittee and work to get the attention of other committees and jurisdictions in the Congress."

More than 90 percent of AOPA members surveyed said they voted in the most recent elections.

General aviation manufacturers say that nuisance liability lawsuits and the associated high products liability insurance costs have stifled their business. The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 set an 18-year statute of repose on general aviation manufacturers. Such efforts to limit the liability of manufacturers did spur manufacturing and increase employment, but high liability awards and nuisance lawsuits persist. Mica and others involved in aviation would like to see that change. "We've got to do an even better job on all of these areas of tort and liability reform," said Mica. "Even in health care, which we hope to tackle also, we've seen dramatic increases for the costs of those individuals trying to find health coverage — those small businesses, and many people in aviation are small-business people. Cutting back on the benefits of health care is becoming routine. Part of the huge increase is because of liability.... I think we can help the industry across the board by some very significant and continued liability reform."

"This is one of the fastest major transitions that the aviation industry has accepted," says Dan Schwinn, president of Avidyne. "I thought it would take north of five years."

"General aviation is in a good and healthy place. Obviously 9/11 rocked us all back on our heels. And general aviation still has progress to make in terms of overall volume in traffic these days, but it's definitely coming back and that's a very exciting thing," said Blakey.

While general aviation faces numerous threats, there is encouraging news on the safety front, which Blakey is quick to acknowledge: "The terrific fact that I don't think is as recognized by the public as it should be is that we are in the safest period in aviation history, and that is across the board from commercial aviation right through the general aviation community. We have a great deal to be proud of," reminded Blakey. "That said, of course, we want to continue to drive that accident rate down and certainly drive down the number of fatalities. And I'm glad that we partner with AOPA and the [Air] Safety Foundation because there are areas that we can improve as well. One of the terrific areas that AOPA has made great strides on is runway incursions and the kinds of education campaign that you have mounted. That has been very important and I think it has contributed substantially, as has work on CFIT [controlled flight into terrain] accidents, as has work on aeronautical decision making, weather. So there are a number of areas that we are working on in partnership with the general aviation joint steering committee and AOPA's safety foundation. And again we've got some work in front of us and there's more to be done, but we need to stay on it and recognize that we're making great progress."

From Blakey's view at FAA headquarters, general aviation is well positioned to grow and thrive, despite current difficulties. "General aviation is in a good and healthy place. Obviously 9/11 rocked us all back on our heels. And general aviation still has progress to make in terms of overall volume in traffic these days, but it's definitely coming back and that's a very exciting thing," said Blakey. "Another thing that I think is exciting is the technology that is coming into play for the general aviation pilot. Not only the safety technologies that can be very helpful in the cockpit, but also GPS and the ability to now use the Wide Area Augmentation System — we want to see the GA community move robustly into using that because it's a huge asset and advantage. And then, of course, new aircraft are coming into play — the microjets that some parts of the general aviation community are going to begin to take advantage of potentially as early as the end of next year. So there are exciting developments for GA that I think in the long run are going to change the face of it and all for the better."

Videos of the Blakey and Mica interviews may be found on AOPA Online.

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines first began reporting on general aviation from Capitol Hill two decades ago. Over the past 20 years he has interviewed many members of Congress, FAA administrators, secretaries of transportation, and leaders of the general aviation industry.