Rally GA: Pay Up

User-fee proposals keep turning up

February 1, 2012

Imagine paying $25 per landing, $15 for a flight service briefing, or $50 to utilize an ILS approach. With aviation user fees, any stage of flight could have a price tag. In countries around the world, this system of charges for use of the airspace system has piggybacked on taxes to make flying prohibitively expensive. Some pilots stop flying. Some fly less. Some never learn to fly at all.

The United States’ aviation system relies primarily on a time-tested system of excise taxes, with a smaller contribution from the general fund. Those taxes—currently 19.3 cents per gallon of avgas and 21.8 cents per gallon of noncommercial Jet A—are included in the amount charged for fuel, and that revenue goes directly to the federal government, without a costly bureaucracy to administer fees. These taxes are easy to collect and provide an equitable distribution of costs—if you fly farther, you use more fuel and pay more in taxes. GA groups even have agreed to an increase in the tax rate to ensure that GA continues to pay its fair share to keep the airspace system running smoothly. But user-fee proposals keep turning up.

Proposals to add these new charges to the mix have resurfaced many times over the last two decades, each time warded off by the efforts of AOPA, oter aviation organizations, pilots, and allies in Congress. But the threat continues: With the U.S. national debt climbing above $15 trillion, lawmakers have recently been under pressure to find new revenue sources. For those who don’t understand the contributions of GA or the potentially devastating effects of burdening the industry with large new costs, aviation is an appealing target. AOPA remains vigilant against new proposals, working on Capitol Hill and throughout the nation to make sure GA’s voice is heard.

The fees down under

In Australia, pilots pay by the mile for air traffic control services, and are billed for each landing or practice approach. AOPA-Australia President Phillip Reiss said an hour-and-a-half flight in a Cessna 182 might generate $23.50 Australian (about $24.05) in ATC service charges—in addition to the landing fees assessed by individual airports. On a recent flight to renew his instrument rating in the Piper Twin Comanche he flies for business, he used the ILS at Tamworth in central New South Wales but did not land; he later received a bill for $56.87, he said—plus a 10-percent tax on the fee, bringing the total to $62.50.

How did Australian aviation get to the point where even government fees have surtaxes? When the government replaced much of the fuel levy with user fees in the 1990s, many pilots welcomed the change: Why not shift the burden of paying for air traffic control, they reasoned, to people who used the services the most? The fuel tax—at the time, more than 50 cents a gallon—would virtually disappear, ostensibly making flying more feasible for the average aviator.

Not so, Reiss explained. “Bureaucracies grow, and so the costs grow,”
he said. The bureaucracy that was established to collect and bill flights enabled more charges on users of the system. And fuel taxes began to creep higher, too, so pilots ended up paying both ways.

Now, in addition to the fees associated with their flights, pilots pay for everything from having a medical certificate processed (in addition to the doctor’s fee) to renewing a security access card for certain airports. For many, it’s simply too much. “They look at it and they say, ‘All this is getting too expensive,’ and so they quit flying,” Reiss said.

Australian GA groups are now focused on either curbing the growing bureaucracy or circumventing it in order to continue flying. Pilots who fly for pleasure have found respite in the less-regulated and less-costly realm of recreational and sport aviation; while regular GA flight hours have decreased, membership in Recreational Aviation Australia (RA-Aus), an organization whose mission is to “foster, encourage and develop safe Recreational Aviation in Australia with minimum bureaucracy and minimum cost,” grew from 3,600 in the mid-1990s to more than 9,600 in 2011.

Even if many GA flights initially were exempt from the fee, the bureaucracy that would administer, collect, and process fees could easily expand them to other types of aviation.

AOPA-Australia scored a significant victory for GA overall in 2011 when the government changed its system of en route charges to exempt pilots from the charges if they accrue less than $500 per year. AOPA-Australia was able to negotiate the concession, Ross explained, because “it costs them more to administer and collect the money than what they actually get back in.”

The change provides relief for pilots who don’t fly frequently, but it only helps to a point: As soon as $501 accrues, a pilot owes the full $501. And now that the collection bureaucracy has been established, it’s unlikely Australia will shed its elaborate system of fees. “The damage has already been done,” Reiss said.

Threats at home

While Australian pilots have been coping with the reality of a user-fee system, GA pilots in the United States have fought to keep the blight from our shores. User-fee proposals have taken many forms over the years, put forth by presidents from both parties, and others—including at one time the FAA itself. The most vocal proponent of user fees recently has been the White House.

President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2010 proposed $9.6 billion in new user fees in 2011, increasing to $11 billion by 2014. Congress roundly rejected the proposal; more than 100 members of Congress told the president in a letter that the policy would be a “nonstarter,” and authorization bills passed by the House and Senate eschewed user fees in favor of established fuel taxes.

The administration’s 2011 budget request left out any mention of user fees, but that didn’t mean the idea had been put to rest: The President’s Plan for Economic Growth and Deficit Reduction, submitted to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction or “Super Committee,” outlined a proposal “to establish a new mandatory surcharge for air traffic services. This proposal would create a $100-per-flight fee, payable to the FAA, by aviation operators who fly in controlled airspace.”

This proposal would exempt military aircraft, public aircraft, recreational piston aircraft, air ambulances, aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace, and Canada-to-Canada flights, but the vagueness of the wording could leave most GA operators vulnerable. “Controlled airspace” could refer to anywhere one might be subject to air traffic control. And the idea of exempting “recreational piston aircraft” introduces a level of bureaucracy beyond even the landing tally and mile count seen in Australia: Someone would have to determine the purpose of each flight and bill for it accordingly.

Even if many GA flights initially were exempt from the fee, the bureaucracy that would administer, collect, and process fees could easily expand them to other types of aviation—and other services. If the government already tracks how many landings you make, what’s to stop it from charging for each one? And the charges could grow. Additional fees would bypass the congressional budgeting process, allowing the new bureaucracy to charge more without a vote in Congress.

As the Super Committee reviewed the president’s and other lawmakers’ proposals for reducing the deficit, AOPA worked to arm key members of Congress with the facts about aviation user fees. Dozens of members of the House GA Caucus, more than 100 members of Congress, and 23 senators signed three separate letters to the committee or the president warning of the crippling effect of per-flight user fees, and a broad coalition of aviation organizations cautioned that proposals to increase charges on all aspects of aviation “would lead to significant job loss across all sectors of the industry and the nation.”

The Super Committee failed to produce a deficit-reduction proposal by its November 2011 deadline, but pressures to find new revenue sources remain. User-fee proposals are bound to resurface. As of December, the House and Senate had yet to agree on a long-term FAA reauthorization bill, and the Obama administration’s next budget is set to be released in February. Hopefully neither will contain proposals for damaging user fees, but AOPA is preparing for the possibility.

The specifics of proposals vary, but the effects are the same: User fees would cripple GA with untenable costs and create a federal collection bureaucracy that is bound to grow. AOPA continually works to educate lawmakers and opinion leaders about GA’s 1.3 million jobs, $150 billion yearly contribution to the U.S. economy, and the potentially devastating effects of stifling GA activity with excess charges. A strong understanding of GA among lawmakers will continue to help fortify GA against the next user-fee threat, from wherever it may come.

Email the author at sarah.brown@aopa.org.