A look back at 2007: User fees and flight service

January 3, 2008

A look back at 2007: User fees and flight service

By AOPA Communications staff

AOPA presses for FSS improvements

Ask any GA pilot what issue—besides FAA funding—got him or her most riled up in 2007, and the answer would most likely be the problems they experienced with the launch of the modernized flight service station system, known as FS21.

With high hopes, the FAA turned to contractor Lockheed Martin to launch FS21 in late April, but such expectations quickly turned sour or into what many members called “a disaster.” As the complaints mounted, AOPA stepped up its watchdog role as an advocate for pilots. With support from both Congress and the Department of Transportation’s inspector general, AOPA held both the FAA and Lockheed Martin to account and offered real-world advice for solutions along the way.

By the end of the year, many of the problems with the transition and modernization had been resolved, but AOPA continues to push for improvements to the system. Top priority in 2008 is to work with Lockheed Martin and the FAA to modify performance metrics toward more qualitative customer service measures, such as tailoring briefings to a pilot’s rating/skill level and ensuring that flight plans are not just filed on time but correctly.

The House aviation subcommittee, under the leadership of Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), will also continue its strong oversight role and is expected to receive a requested report from the FAA on FS21 performance later this month.

For AOPA and its members, 2007 will be the year remembered for the most intense fight ever against user fees.

AOPA led a hard fight in opposition to a concerted, coordinated attack by the FAA and the airlines to impose user fees and excessive taxes on general aviation.

The FAA fired the first salvo on Valentine’s Day by formally releasing legislation titled the “Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007.” The FAA’s bill was introduced in both the Senate and House as a courtesy to the Bush administration.

An audacious move

In retrospect, the sheer audacity of the FAA’s proposal seemed incredible. Among other things, it sought to increase general aviation fuel taxes by nearly 300 percent, implement ATC user fees, shift $2 billion of tax revenues from airline passengers onto GA pilots and operations, and establish unprecedented powers for the FAA administrator with little or no congressional oversight.

At the time, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey justified the requested changes as necessary to pay for the NextGen (Next Generation) ATC system. In reality the bill would actually provide nearly $600 million less in funding. It was also clear that the bill represented a substantial tax cut for the airlines by shifting costs to GA, while reducing congressional oversight in the management of the ATC system and FAA programs.

While the FAA and the airlines embarked on an aggressive public relations effort to convince Congress and the aviation community that the principles contained in the FAA bill would result in a fairer system for all users and eliminate barriers for financing NextGen, AOPA and the GA community weren’t buying what the FAA and the airlines were selling. Linking arms and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the National Business Aviation Association and others, AOPA shot back with its own media campaign, giving reporters who would be covering the issue the real story, separating fact from fiction.

Reaching out and firing back

AOPA launched a Web page to educate members, the media, and others interested in learning about the FAA funding issue. AOPA also called on its friends in Congress to speak out against the FAA proposal and have used every public appearance and other industry forums to speak out against user fees and excessive taxes on GA. AOPA Pilot played an important role, publishing monthly feature stories on the issue and how it would affect pilots.

AOPA members were among the most vocal opponents of user fees. Through letter writing, e-mail, and telephone campaigns targeting congressional representatives of the key committees with responsibility for FAA funding, AOPA members expressed their views on the FAA proposal and its negative impact on the GA community. More than 100,000 members signed petitions against user fees at Sun ’n Fun, AirVenture, and AOPA Expo.

Congress got the message. House aviation leadership, led by Reps. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), introduced a bill that AOPA and its members could endorse. The House bill—H.R.2881—has no user fees and recommends inflationary adjustments for taxes on avgas and jet fuel.

In the Senate Commerce Committee, aviation subcommittee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and top Republican Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sought a $25-per-flight air traffic modernization surcharge user fee in Senate Bill 1300. While piston aircraft were exempted from the user fee and no increase in avgas excise taxes were recommended, nearly two-thirds of AOPA members in an outbound phone survey told the association to reject this deal and fight the principle of user fees. The Commerce Committee also recommended that the Finance Committee increase the tax on jet fuel from 21.8 to 49 cents per gallon but eliminate the 4.3 cents per gallon tax the airlines pay for their jet fuel.

Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) offered an amendment to S.1300, supported by AOPA, to remove the $25 user fee from the bill during committee markup. While the amendment failed by a razor thin vote of 11 to 12, it sent a clear message: “General aviation is strongly opposed to user fees for any segment of aviation.”

Changing seasons, shifting legislation

As summer progressed, the FAA funding legislation moved to the tax-writing committees, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

After an intense lobbying effort by AOPA against last-ditch attempts by the airlines and the FAA to include taxes for GA access into terminal areas, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the Airport and Airway Trust Fund Financing Act (H.R.3539). This bill rejected user fees and instead increased the GA fuel taxes and dedicated the additional revenue to modernize the ATC system. Specifically, avgas would increase from 19.3 to 24.1 cents per gallon and Jet A would increase from 21.8 to 35.9 cents per gallon. On Sept. 20, the House combined the tax provisions with the funding provisions into one bill and passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (H.R.2881) by a vote of 267 to 151.

In the Senate, the Finance Committee approved a bill supported by the association that increased Jet A from 21.8 to 35.9 cents per gallon while it maintained the existing level of tax on avgas at 19.3 cents per gallon. The finance bill would raise the funds necessary—about $400 million per year—that negates the need for the $25 user fee in the Commerce Committee-approved bill (S.1300). The additional revenue raised would be dedicated to ATC modernization.

As summer turned to fall, and the government’s fiscal year ended without a joint compromise, Congress extended the existing funding and tax structure. And as fall turned to winter, the disagreement over the $25 user fee was holding up consideration of the legislation by the Senate. As other government business took precedence, progress stagnated.

Senate must act

On Dec. 20, President Bush signed a $14.6 billion appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008 as part of the omnibus funding bill for all federal agencies. In essence, it extends the FAA’s existing funding and tax structure through the end of February.

It is critical that the Senate finalizes an FAA funding bill without any user fees, and that it does so soon. The government’s authority to collect aviation taxes and spend from the aviation trust fund will expire at the end of February. If Congress does not act by then, the federal government will have to stop collecting fuel and passenger ticket taxes, and no new money will flow into the aviation trust fund. And even though Congress appropriated $3.5 billion for the Airport Improvement Program as part of the omnibus bill, it did not give the FAA the authority to issue new contracts to actually spend any of the money on airports.

As the calendar rolls over into 2008, AOPA remains on the front lines of the fight, leading the charge. Victory is within our grasp, but the battle isn’t over until the president signs a workable bill—that rejects user fees—into law.

January 3, 2008