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User fees get cold shoulder in House subcommittee hearingUser fees get cold shoulder in House subcommittee hearing

User fees get cold shoulder in House subcommittee hearing

Some of the first salvos in the latest user-fee battle were fired last week in a House aviation subcommittee hearing room. The committee called officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the privatized air traffic control systems of Canada and Germany. But so far there seems to be little support on this committee for going down the same path in the United States.

And perhaps most telling, while "efficiency" is an argument for privatizing air traffic control, none of the officials in that hearing could answer the question: "How efficient are these privatized systems compared to the U.S. system?"

But AOPA could - and did - answer the question. On a cost-per-operation basis, most of the supposedly more "efficient" privatized systems cost a lot more than the FAA's government-run, tax-supported air traffic control system.

Tennessee Rep. John Duncan asked how foreign controller productivity compares to that of U.S. air traffic control. The Government Accountability Office didn't have the answer, neither did the German representative, nor the Nav Canada official.

So after the hearing AOPA President Phil Boyer dropped in on Duncan to provide the facts. As it turns out, the average controller in the United States handles approximately 3,500 IFR operations each year at a cost of $172 each. By comparison, in Germany the average controller handles only 490 operations at a cost of $390 each. So while it is true that some privatized ATC systems have become more cost efficient, they still aren't as efficient as the U.S. system.

And some aviation subcommittee members are adamantly opposed to user fees. "I want all AOPA members in my state to know that I'm not for user fees and there is no way I will be for them," said Duncan, who is the former committee chairman.

"Let me say from the outset that I strongly oppose any suggestion that [we] should consider privatizing the air traffic control system here in the United States," said the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerry F. Costello of Illinois.

On the claims that some privatized systems had reduced costs for the airlines, Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina remarked rather pointedly to the GAO representative, "I noticed kind of buried in your figures were reference to other countries who supposedly had lowered their overall costs for the air carriers by charging general aviation a fee. Of course, I would question that."

The GAO representative acknowledged that the FAA was moving to a more businesslike operation with the recent creation of the performance-based Air Traffic Organization to run air traffic control - a model quite similar to some elements of the foreign system. He recommended that the FAA's ATO be allowed at least two more years to demonstrate how it can modernize and run air traffic control more efficiently.

Boyer is scheduled to testify before the aviation subcommittee on FAA financing next week.

April 26, 2005

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