Airlines concede victory to AOPA on user fees

July 25, 2006

Airlines concede victory to AOPA on user fees
But beware the details

Jim May
Jim May, ATA president

It was the first time that the two biggest players in aviation - AOPA and the Air Transport Association (the "airlines' AOPA") - appeared together on the same stage to talk about future FAA funding. AOPA President Phil Boyer and ATA President Jim May argued their organizations' positions on user fees Monday before the Florida Airports Council annual conference in Ft. Myers.

And May told the mostly general aviation audience what he thought they wanted to hear.

GA "victory"?

"I'm here to declare victory to Phil," May told the audience of airport managers and executives. "The airlines don't support user fees [long pause] for general aviation piston-engine aircraft."

"Jim and I agree on many things," Boyer responded, "but we have a fundamental disagreement on two things; user fees of any kind, and the necessity of congressional oversight of the FAA."

First, there is the "camel's nose under the tent" argument. "User fees for some will inevitably lead to user fees for all," Boyer said. "It's happened everywhere else in the world."

Ignoring the future

But more importantly, the airlines - as far as GA is concerned - are looking to the past, not the future.

"GA propulsion is changing," Boyer said. "As avgas becomes more expensive, as the pressure increases to eliminate leaded aviation fuels such as 100LL, general aviation is turning to alternative engine technologies.

"In the future, a user-fee exemption for piston-engine aircraft may be meaningless. As we've seen with the very light jets, turbines are becoming smaller and more adaptable. Multi-fuel turbines may some day become the standard for all levels of general aviation."

Get Congress out of the loop?

The airlines see Congress as part of the problem.

AOPA views Congress as the best protection for individual pilots and general aviation airports.

May said that Congress shouldn't be involved in making decisions on where to locate FAA facilities, for example. But Boyer countered that some smaller communities have airports precisely because of Congress.

"With Congress sitting as the board of directors for the FAA, we have created the safest, and most efficient, air transportation system in the world," said Boyer. "Why would we want to mess with success?"

May argued that there is a pending crisis for both capacity and funding.

But Boyer countered that the current tax system is forecast to provide more money than the FAA has budgeted, leaving the aviation trust fund with a surplus out to the year 2011 at least. That's according to the White House, through an Office of Management and Budget forecast.

It's the runways...

As to capacity, Boyer agreed with May that ATC modernization is needed. But he said that outside analysts (such as the Mitre Corporation, a key FAA consultant) have concluded that improvements to air traffic control might increase system capacity by 30 percent at most.

"Dramatic gains in capacity can only come with more runways," said Boyer. "The major bottlenecks are at the major airports, as the airlines try to pack too many flights onto too few runways.

"As we've seen at Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, more runways equal more capacity. It's that simple," Boyer said.

July 25, 2006