President's Position: Spring fever

April 1, 2008

Phil and Lois Boyer own and fly a 1977 Cessna Skyhawk.

Spring is upon us, and that usually means a significant increase in flying activity for those of us who live and work in four-season climates.

This weekend it was still a bit too cold to pull my biplane out of the hangar, but Sunday was a great day for my wife Lois to get some takeoffs and landings in our 1977 Skyhawk, and for me to check out the airplane after last month’s annual inspection. The pattern at Frederick Municipal Airport was loaded with owners and renters who must have had similar “return-to-flying” thoughts. In a very short time, as is the case with pilot-controlled, nontowered airports, we were in the air and headed to Martinsburg, West Virginia.

The Martinsburg airport has undergone several changes in the couple years since we were last there: resurfacing and lengthening of the main runway; closure of the crosswind runway; relocation of a taxiway; and a huge increase in ramp space for the Air National Guard, which services and trains for the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. In addition, the airport has constructed a new terminal building with pilot lounge, FBO, and, most important to pilots, a restaurant on the second floor. The changes are the result of powerful and longtime Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who successfully fought to keep the reserve base, and make the needed changes at the airport. Lois liked the idea of getting in some touch and goes before meeting up with friends, especially in light of the new 7,000-foot runway. So as I sat in the co-pilot’s seat looking down at this whole new airport, a tribute to Sen. Byrd’s effort, it reminded me of the power of a U.S. Senator and the responsibility to his/her state.

As my wife turned crosswind two large buildings reminded me of the other West Virginia Senator, Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who, like Byrd, came to the support of his state’s economy by working hard to establish manufacturing plants for the New Tiger Aircraft and Sino-Swearingen’s SJ30-2 jet. While Tiger has closed and the other is restructuring, Rockefeller toiled hard to ensure that they located at Martinsburg, and I recall even spent personal funds to assist in finding Far East investors to finance the new operations. This is part of his historic interest and support for general aviation.

As we reached pattern altitude and turned downwind, however, my pleasant thoughts turned to the dilemma we now find ourselves in with this same senator. It’s ironic that the political power inherent in Congress that helped this general aviation airport now is being turned against GA in the current FAA funding battle. The debate continues at this writing on how to fund the FAA for the next few years, in spite of the legislation expiring October 1 of last year. The current taxes have undergone six extensions—the latest in February—and this new extension will expire June 30.

The full House of Representatives has passed a bill that, with a few exceptions, AOPA finds acceptable. The House bill took the hard work of the aviation subcommittee, passed it through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (aviation expenditures and policy), matched it with the Ways and Means Committee (taxes), and it passed on a full House of Representatives vote as H.R.2881. It contains an inflationary adjustment avgas tax increase, the first since 1993; a heftier turbine fuel tax; but no user fees. Using the historic combination of airline ticket taxes and GA fuel taxes, H.R.2881 raises dollars to operate the FAA and fund medium-term ATC modernization projects, and supports our commercial and GA airport funding requirements.

Meanwhile Senator Rockefeller chairs the powerful Senate aviation subcommittee, which is part of the Commerce Committee (aviation expenditures), and it passed S.1300 that includes a $25 user fee. The AOPA-supported bill from the Senate finance committee, S.2345, rejected the user fee approach recommended by the commerce committee; therefore, it kept the current aviation tax structure while raising the GA turbine fuel tax by 65 percent. So, with the Rockefeller committee and the finance committee at odds, there is no coordinated bill for the Senate to address.

There will not be an FAA funding bill this year “based on the GA community’s inability to compromise,” said Rockefeller during a late February Senate commerce committee hearing. “I blame it on them because we can’t work it out.” Rockefeller also contended that general aviation is not currently paying its fair share of the costs of operating ATC.

But his colleague on the committee, Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), disagreed. To say that general aviation killed the FAA funding bill for the year is “a bit of an unfair statement,” said Sununu. He noted that GA has supported bills that “bring us to a much more equitable and proportionate sharing of the costs” of the ATC system. Sununu said that he and other members of the commerce committee opposed the $25 user fee because it would have significant administrative costs and be difficult to oversee.

As Lois turned from base to final, it made me acutely aware that I had better pay attention to the beautiful flying day and the landing about to occur. My spring fever was interrupted only for a few minutes reflecting how close we are to resolving the user fee battle—except for one powerful senator.