November 11, 2009
Phil Boyer, president of the 404,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, will tell members of the House Aviation subcommittee tomorrow that user fees are the wrong way to fund the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He'll tell them that user fees could undermine aviation safety, that the "funding crisis" at the FAA is artificial, and that the current practice of charging an excise tax on fuel is the best way for general aviation pilots to pay their share of air traffic control costs.
General aviation is coming off of its safest year since record-keeping began in 1938. Yet, Boyer will tell Congress, adopting user fees could cause pilots to avoid the many safety services offered by the FAA. "For years, AOPA has worked with the FAA, through our Air Safety Foundation, to continually lower the accident rate for general aviation. A piecemeal system of fees and charges gives pilots a direct financial incentive to avoid using the safety features and programs provided within the National Airspace System."
In his prepared remarks, Boyer will remind the lawmakers that the air transportation system is vital to the U.S. economy and make the case that at least 25 percent of the costs to operate the FAA should be supported by general tax revenues.
"When Congress created the Airport and Airway Trust Fund in 1970, it did not expect the trust fund to finance FAA's entire budget," Boyer will tell Congress. "In the 1980s, the general fund contributed about 45 percent of the FAA's budget. By the end of the 1990s, this had decreased to 29 percent. For the last five years, the general fund support as ranged from 0 percent to 24 percent. Considering the importance of a healthy aviation system to the nation and the role FAA plays in national security, this wide variation in support should not be allowed to continue, and a 25 percent general fund contribution to the FAA's spending should be established."
He will also tell the members of Congress that individual general aviation pilots who use aircraft for personal or business use are the only segment of aviation to pay for the aviation excise taxes out of their own pockets. And he'll remind the subcommittee members that excise tax is a very efficient way for the government to collect revenue for the Aviation Trust Fund - much more efficient than collecting user fees would be.
"Collecting the current aviation excise taxes is extremely efficient with a low cost of collection. During the last debate on aviation taxes and fees in the late 1990s, the Internal Revenue Service reported that it only cost $1.7 million to collect over $5.5 billion in excise tax revenue - a mere .001 percent cost by the government to collect. Collecting user fees would require a huge new accounting bureaucracy with a much higher cost to collect the bees because of the complexity of such a system. The reality of such a system is more money would need to be collected simply to break even."
An AOPA member quoted in Boyer's remarks goes even further. "I believe that this excise tax is a win-win situation - it is efficient for the federal government to administer, it helps pay for the NAS even on those flights when I don't use any of its services."
Another AOPA member quoted notes the dampening effect user fees could have on small businesses that use light aircraft to support their business. "If additional costs were imposed on the use of my airplane through a user fee-based system, it would limit severely our ability to grow and ultimately our ability to survive."
"AOPA has shown a commitment to reducing the costs of services utilized by the general aviation community and at the same time looked for ways to improve safety by enhancing the quality of FAA services," Boyer's testimony says, citing the competitive sourcing for flight service stations, elimination of redundant ground navigation aids, nighttime closure of low-volume control towers, and transition to the space-based GPS/WAAS navigation system, which ultimately will cost much less to operate and maintain than current ground-based navigation aids.
And Boyer will point out that general aviation is not what drives FAA's costs, noting that, "A National Airspace System designed solely for general aviation would look vastly different and cost much less than the current system."
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