User fee ‘pause,’ caucus growth marked 2010 on Capitol Hill

December 22, 2010

A “pause” in any movement toward aviation user fees, additional action on a long-term FAA bill, and an interest in avgas research and development made 2010 a productive year for AOPA on Capitol Hill.

President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget announcement was awaited with anticipation, as early budget briefs had suggested a return of “direct charges levied on users of the system”—that is, user fees—to the debate. But after that trial balloon drifted into view with the administration’s 2010 budget, aviation supporters, including more than 100 members of Congress, made it clear in a letter to the president that such a policy would be a “ non-starter.”

The word got through.  When the 2011 budget document was made public Feb. 1, user-fee language was not included.

“The decision not to include user fees in the 2011 budget is encouraging, and it allows all of us in the aviation community to focus on important priorities like air traffic control modernization, keeping airports open, and growing the pilot population. We are especially focused on any and all actions that will encourage the return to growth in the GA sector,” wrote AOPA President Craig Fuller in “User Fees on Pause,” on Feb. 1 after the proposed new budget’s release.

In addition to no user fees in the president’s 2011 budget, the Senate passed an FAA reauthorization bill that did not include user fees. AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton pointed out the importance of passing an FAA bill by the end of the year saying, “there is a new Congress that starts up in January, and that new Congress can then open up the FAA authorization bill, add and detract issues, and come up with a brand new bill. At that point, user fees will become very fluid as a topic because they become fluid as a topic every time FAA funding is debated.”  Unfortunately, there were several controversial issues in the House and Senate passed bills that could not be worked out by the end of the year, so Congress passed its seventeenth extension to fund the FAA through March 31, 2011. This means the aviation community will not see an FAA bill until sometime in 2011.

While user fees were not an issue in the Senate FAA bill this year, AOPA was advocating for other items of interest to general aviation.  For instance, the association was troubled by language that would have required ADS-B Out equipage by 2015 and ADS-B In equipage by 2018, and worked with Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb., also a co-chair of the Senate GA Caucus) to have this language changed. The effort was successful and the Senate accepted language that would require the FAA to first publish rules setting the standards for equipage so that operators would not absorb the cost of new equipment without clear directions from the FAA.

AOPA also sought and won an amendment that would require the FAA administrator to identify the benefits of transitioning to satellite-based navigation for small- and medium-sized airports and GA users and require the Government Accountability Office to study the impact of increases in aviation fuel prices.

“It is important to remember that the FAA’s responsibility goes beyond large airports and commercial airlines; rural airports and general aviation are sometimes hit much harder by federal regulations, which can cause a ripple effect in states like Nebraska,” Johanns said. “I am pleased the FAA Reauthorization bill now includes specific acknowledgement of these smaller yet significant contributors to our state economy and our aviation system as a whole.”

Senate GA Caucus co-chair Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he was pleased with the legislation. “You can’t go wrong with a bill that creates jobs, improves the safety and efficiency of air travel, and invests in our airports,” he said. “Many of our communities have no road or ferry access. Aviation is our lifeline as many Alaskans rely completely on small aircraft to keep our communities connected.”

The next Congress will have to start all over again on an FAA bill; and as Fuller pointed out in his President’s Perspective commentary in the November 2010 Flight Training magazine, all of the issues on which the association made headway these past 12 months, and more, will be back on the agenda next year.

Moving toward an avgas solution

Another issue that AOPA was successful in garnering attention for on Capitol Hill related to developing an unleaded avgas to replace 100 low-lead. AOPA advocated for $2 million in the Fiscal Year 2011 Transportation appropriations bill (also contained in the president’s budget) for research, engineering, and development of alternative fuels. This is a new FAA initiative to research and test new unleaded fuels and piston engine modifications to seek a safe alternative to the currently utilized leaded avgas.

“We didn’t just seek money, we sought GA protections and were successful in having language inserted that directs that stakeholder participation be an essential component of the R&D program,” Howerton said. “Congress recognizes how significant an issue avgas is to the general aviation community and the importance of providing R&D funding as well as ensuring stakeholder participation.”  Unfortunately, none of the annual appropriation bills have been sent to the president, and Congress may pass an all-encompassing bill to fund the entire federal government in 2011or a short-term continuing resolution until the new Congress convenes in January, she added.

GA caucuses grow

With so much facing GA in Washington, the importance of educating officeholders about GA and increasing membership of the Congressional GA Caucus was clear. That goal continued to be met in 2010. The House GA Caucus ended 2010 with more than 120 members. Fuller addressed the inaugural meeting of the House GA Caucus on May 21, 2009, and commented afterward, “Individually, these members have long been supporters of general aviation.  But now they speak with a more unified voice.”  On the Senate side, Begich and Johanns launched the Senate GA Caucus in late 2009, which has now grown to 31 senators.

With the support from the House and Senate GA Caucuses, 2010 saw Congress recognize the importance of GA. The House and Senate passed a joint resolution that GA pilots and industry should be recognized for the contributions made in response to Haiti earthquake relief efforts.  It also passed a resolution that supports the goals and ideals of International Learn to Fly Day and recognizes the contributions of flight instructors, flight schools, aviation groups, and industry in promoting and teaching the nation’s next generation of pilots.  And, the House continued to recognize GA by passing a resolution expressing support for recreational aviation and backcountry airstrips, which serve a vital role for emergency flight operations, fire fighting, wildlife management, and tourism.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.