"If they're talking about user fees on general aviation, they don't know what they're talking about," a visibly animated Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta told a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday morning. "I've seen the press stories, as has everybody else. But what is before OMB has no user fees imposed on general aviation." (The White House Office of Management and Budget - OMB - is currently reviewing the administration's FAA funding proposal before it is presented to Congress and released to the public.)
In response to Rep. Todd Tiahrt's (R-Kansas) question, "Are you considering user fees on general aviation to fund the air traffic control system?" Secretary Mineta answered emphatically, "No! I've said this to AOPA at their annual convention...there would not be any user fees."
Mineta acknowledged a safety concern over general aviation user fees, saying GA pilots likely wouldn't file flight plans if they were charged for them. "That impacts on safety. Our department is all about safety!" [ Watch a video of some of Sec. Mineta's remarks.]
"Secretary Mineta is a good friend of general aviation, and we have no doubt that as long as he has any power over the issue, he will oppose user fees on piston-engine general aviation," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "But Secretary Mineta won't always be in charge.
"Once the precedent is established for one category of airspace user, the pressure starts building to extend the fees to all other users in the interest of 'fairness,'" Boyer continued. "That's happened in almost every country in the world where user fees have been imposed."
It's an issue of control, Boyer said. User fee-funded air traffic control systems are usually operated by a board of directors where the biggest users - the airlines - hold the majority of the seats.
"We much prefer having Congress to arbitrate between the needs of citizen pilots and the desires of private business," said Boyer.
Much of the pressure for changing the way FAA is funded comes from a perception that Congress might not meet all of the agency's needs in the future.
"Do you really feel that this committee has avoided its responsibilities to properly fund the FAA?" Rep. Tiahrt asked Sec. Mineta.
He didn't wait for the Secretary to answer and referred to the Department of Transportation's submission to the committee. "It looks like since 1997 through 2006, you've gotten 99 percent of your budget request," Tiahrt noted pointedly.
"That's why we want to keep Congress in control," Boyer said. "Through the years Congress may not have always given FAA what it wants, but it usually gives the agency what it needs."
March 7, 2006