President's Position: FAA funding
AOPA President Phil Boyer is dedicated to fighting user fees.
This month's issue of AOPA Pilot is dedicated to covering the "State of General Aviation." Looking forward, there is one huge issue that transcends post-9/11 security, airport issues, and the myriad other problems and opportunities facing GA. It's a repeat of an every-decade cry from the airlines that "they" are paying too much to fund the air traffic control (ATC) system.
Gee, last time I checked, it wasn't the airlines that were paying for the system—it was the airline passengers through ticket taxes. But the airlines feel as if those are their dollars. In fact, individual light-airplane owners and pilots are the only segment of aviation to pay aviation excise taxes (fuel tax) out of their own pockets. And, if memory serves me right, ATC? was created after two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. ATC was designed, built, and continues to operate to serve the public safety of those who travel by commercial air carriers.
The current transportation taxes expire at the end of September 2007. By that time Congress must reaffirm the present tax structure or design a new one that will be in place for 10 years. Never before has any of us involved in past FAA funding debates seen such an early lobbying effort by the airlines, fueled by the Department of Transportation and the FAA claiming that the system needs more dollars for the future and the Aviation Trust Fund (our bank for these taxes) is out of money. The scare tactic the airlines are using to get both public and press attention is that the ATC system needs modernizing and it won't have the money to handle a projected billion passengers a year in 2015. The modernization of air traffic control was started in 1981, was supposed to take 10 years, and was to cost $11 billion. This two-decade modernization effort has cost not $11 billion but more than $45 billion and climbing.
The user-fee scenario is the ugly one that many of us fear in the quest to revise the FAA funding mechanism. These fees are not yet defined, but might include takeoff, landing, and en route system charges. The Reason Foundation, a longtime advocate for user fees, during our last battle actually had a detailed table of charges produced for each individual operation of ATC, from the preflight briefing through landing, including different charges if you used small or large control towers. Our system has operated successfully with the most efficient tax-collection method in existence—the aviation excise tax on tickets and fuel. The most recent debate on this issue occurred during the mid-1990s, and at that time the Internal Revenue Service reported that it cost $1.7 million to collect more than $5.5 billion in excise tax revenue. That's a mere 0.001-percent cost of government collection, versus the huge new accounting bureaucracy required for collecting air traffic control user fees. And isn't a fuel tax the best way to efficiently assess the use of the system? The more you fly, the more fuel you burn and tax you pay.
The Aviation Trust Fund has come through some difficult challenges in the years following 9/11. However, even our current administration validates that the future revenue numbers are strong and will continue to grow—contrary to what we are hearing in all the "sky is falling" meetings of the past 90 days. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) predicts the trust fund will grow from its $9.2 billion this year to $14.1 billion by 2010, representing an increase of 53 percent. I'd sure like to see that percentage of growth in my personal investment accounts. The other component of FAA funding is the general fund, dollars taken from all taxpayers, whether or not they fly themselves or ride the airlines. The reality is that a vibrant air transportation system benefits the overall economy of our country, with aviation user taxes not being the full funding source. In the 1980s, the general fund contributed about 45 percent to the FAA's budget. By the end of the 1990s this had decreased to 29 percent. For the past five years, the general fund support has ranged from zero to 25 percent. AOPA will continue to advocate for a general fund contribution of at least 25 percent.
But revenues are closely tied to the expense of modernizing and operating the air traffic system. For that reason AOPA has been at the forefront of looking at ways to save money in areas directly related to general aviation. These include our support of reducing the cost of the flight service station system, saving $2.2 billion over the next 10 years; looking at decommissioning 430 NDB approaches and eventually the navaids themselves (where not needed); plus, considering closing low-use control towers for one shift in the middle of the night.
Not a week has passed since early April when your legislative staff, management, and I have not been in meetings, testifying in Congress, or lobbying against a Draconian approach to FAA funding. This is not the first nor will it be the last time I use this monthly column to address the issue. Concerned about the size and voice of AOPA members, there are many inside government and the aviation community who indicate we would be exempt. But who are the we? Members who fly for the airlines, corporate and/or light-airplane owners and pilots, those who fly above a certain altitude, or those who use certain high-traffic airports? Rest assured, your association will remain diligent throughout this discussion, advocating that user fees are not the way to fund the most efficient and safe air traffic system in the world.