User fee talk discovered in airline seatbacks

May 6, 2007

User fee talk discovered in airline seatbacks

Set the airlines straight

While we'd like to take out an ad in the United and Northwest in-flight magazines to rebut their anti-GA editorials, that's not going to happen. But we can fight back...with your help!

If you're planning to fly on United or Northwest airlines soon, there are things you can do. We've developed two rebuttal ads - one for United and another for Northwest - that you can print out, take with you on the airplane, and stick in the magazines.

You can also write the CEOs (below) of the two airlines and e-mail your comments on the editorials to United's United Hemispheres and Northwest's NWA World Traveler .

Douglas Steenland, President and CEO
Northwest Airlines Corporation
2700 Lone Oak Parkway
Eagan, MN 55121

Glenn F. Tilton, Chairman, President, and CEO
UAL Corporation
77 Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60601

The airlines have begun stuffing seatbacks with anti-general aviation propaganda, right next to the sick bags. AOPA has been anticipating such stealthy maneuvers as the FAA funding debate spools up.

So far, editorials have appeared in two in-flight magazines, Northwest's NWA WorldTraveler and United's United Hemispheres, under the headline "Smart Skies," the namesake of the airlines' political initiative.

What's not so smart is the idea - a dramatic oversimplification - of blaming GA for all their woes, namely air traffic delays. The airlines' trade organization, the Air Transport Association, has also started running ads on the CNN Airport Network, making the same claims. (They were countered by the Alliance for Aviation Across America.)

"If only it were that simple," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "At the top 10 busiest airports in the United States, the FAA's own data for all towered airports show that general aviation makes up less than 4 percent of all aircraft operations."

What are the real culprits? A June 5 front-page story in USA Today said that about 40 percent of the delays were caused by weather. Other factors were late-arriving aircraft, maintenance and crew problems, and flight coordination at airports. The article also said that flight delays are at their worst in 13 years.

Yet the ATC system was created for the airlines. The extensive cost is due to the airlines' hub-and-spoke system. It makes business sense for them to shift the blame and costs onto somebody else.

AOPA agrees that the system needs an upgrade, also known as modernization, so that a satellite-based system can reduce fuel costs, bolster the economy, etc. GPS is nothing new to the GA pilot. In fact, GA embraced the technology a decade ago. But it's in the financial details where segments of the industry part ways.

The Government Accountability Office as well as the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation have both concluded that there is adequate money under the existing funding scheme to support modernization.

Seatback literature is currently aimed at corporate aviation, claiming that business jets aren't paying their fair share. Sound familiar? It's as if FAA Administrator Marion Blakey had said it herself. Actually, it was Andrea Fischer Newman, Northwest's senior vice president of government affairs. "Every ticket you buy helps subsidize corporate aviation," she writes.

The truth is that airline passengers and freight users pay a portion of the total costs of operating the ATC system as a whole, similar to buying a postage stamp. No airline or airline trade group has assured travelers that their ticket prices would drop by even a penny if the airlines got the tax breaks they wanted.

The in-flight editorials try to use sheer numbers - present and future - to make their case by comparing corporate jets with airliners. What they don't say is that the airliners fly far more often, exacting a bigger load on the system while imposing a significant cost. Airliners that sit at the gates simply don't make money.

A bill in the Senate would charge turbine aircraft $25 each time they fly in controlled airspace. AOPA remains steadfast against user fees for anyone, knowing how they can trickle down to all segments of aviation as a bad money-sucking system spirals out of control. See " Euro-Fees Fears" and " A Cautionary Tale."

"AOPA members are in a unique position. They fly small planes as pilots and pay fuel taxes. They fly on airliners as passengers and pay ticket taxes," Boyer said. "We've always been paying our fair share."

Updated: June 7, 2007, 6:16 p.m. EDT