In recent months, there's been no question that the FAA is seeking changes to the way it's funded. All this is counting down to October 2007, when Congress will - hopefully before the current system expires - make the final decision on whether aviation taxes and the trust fund continue or there is a switch to an alternative means of collecting money for the FAA.
Earlier this week, the FAA, through the Federal Register, asked for public input on a "new financing structure" for the agency. From the summary, it's pretty easy to see the FAA's and the Bush administration's preferred course of action: "The new financing structure should generate stable and predictable revenue," said the FAA. "The funding mechanism chosen should tie revenues raised for the system to the infrastructure and operational costs of the system."
The agency noted that it is "examining the contributions of various stakeholder groups to the Trust Fund under the current tax structure," and that it has an ongoing study that would "allocate FAA's air traffic control costs to users of the system."
And it's not just air traffic control operations being apportioned among the users.
"In addition, the FAA's Safety and Airports organizations have identified areas where services can be matched to the revenue needed for those programs," the agency said.
The Federal Register summary lists seven question areas, including "other funding alternatives for cost recovery of ATC services and cost allocation" and "lessons learned from other countries." The "other countries" listed in FAA's documentation are all user fee-funded systems.
"Some of the ideas they're exploring right now would have a profound and fundamental economic impact on our ability to continue using general aviation for personal transportation and recreation," said AOPA President Phil Boyer.
Last week AOPA and a select few major aviation stakeholders (airlines, corporate aviation, and airports) also received a 100-page document with questions, data, charts, and appendices seeking "stakeholder input in order to fully consider principles such as marginal system use, use of congested airspace and scarce resources, aircraft weight, distance, and other criteria."
In a letter to AOPA President Phil Boyer, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey stated that "the new financing structure should generate stable and predictable revenue...." While that statement is open to some interpretation, it could certainly point to a radically different approach to funding the FAA.
And one key option could be user fees.
"This issue has the highest priority within AOPA. If the FAA does, in fact, have user fees in mind as a way to fund itself, rest assured we will devote all of our staff and resources to opposing it," said Boyer. "And when the time comes, we will be calling on our members to get involved with Congress as well.
"The current FAA funding system is not broken," Boyer continued. "Aviation excise taxes are the fairest, most efficient way to pay for the continued modernization and operation of our aviation infrastructure. And as I testified before Congress last May, the trust fund will not run out of money if we don't change the rules."
Boyer also reiterated that, because the general citizenry benefits from the aviation system, it is appropriate and fair that the general fund continue to pay for approximately one quarter of the FAA's expenses.
He also said that for something as critical as aviation, it's important that Congress retain oversight and control of the funding.
Another idea the FAA is considering is releasing airports from their current grant assurances to keep the airport open in exchange for forgoing future federal grants. Also under discussion is having airports "purchase" FAA air traffic control services and then work with the users to "match services with user needs."
"The FAA is clearly considering a fundamental change in both the philosophy and mechanisms of allocating and paying for their costs of doing business," said Boyer. "Those decisions will have a profound impact on aviation's future and the availability of general aviation to most citizens.
"Our responses to the data and questions that FAA has spent months, if not years, developing, will be considered and thorough."
September 15, 2005