"You better book that the airlines are coming after you," said political analyst and Democratic Party strategist James Carville 30 minutes before the start of a user-fee expert panel discussion at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention on October 18. The panel will also appear at other aviation gatherings this year, including AOPA Expo in Palm Springs, California, next month.
Carville urged the audience to get involved in politics to win the fight against user fees.
"You better book that they've [airlines] got hundreds, maybe thousands of people in Washington. You've got to get involved in your association. Their ability to be heard depends on your ability to be involved in your PAC (political action committee), and to call your congressman and say, `Look, we're in general aviation here, we have a point of view.' Don't you just get rolled. Like it or not, you're involved in politics."
A battle royal is expected from now to September 30, 2007, when the congressional authorization and tax mechanism that currently funds the FAA expires.
The Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the airlines' trade association, is spearheading a switch from a tax-based system to a user fee-based system. While ATA has promised it won't push for user fees on piston-engine personal aircraft, panel members made it clear that they do not trust ATA to keep the promise and have instead united in preparing for war on the issue.
Specifically, AOPA Executive Vice President of Government Affairs Andy Cebula said an ATA official told him October 16 that aircraft like those flown by most AOPA members "...get a pass" and won't pay user fees. ATA President and CEO Jim May, reached at his office in Washington, said he has offered to work with AOPA to lock in a congressionally mandated exemption "...for 100 years."
But that ignores two things. First, future GA aircraft may very well be powered by something other than avgas-fueled pistons.
Second, user fees will inevitably be extended to all, including piston-engine aircraft. According to Cebula, that's the history of air traffic control systems in the rest of the world, where user fees have reached the smallest aircraft, yet the efficiency of the system compared to that of the United States has suffered. It costs $30 as a consultation fee just to call for a weather briefing in the United Kingdom. Other countries charge by the minute.
Numerous panel members charged that the airlines want to dominate and control the ATC system. May said he recognizes that only Congress can make decisions about the system but added that any user-fee system would have a panel of representatives from all segments of the aviation industry.
"But what he didn't say is that the airlines, as the majority users of the system, would have overriding majority control of the panel," Cebula said.
Also left unsaid, according to Cebula, was how concerned the airlines are about the power of united general aviation pilots and organizations.
"ATA wouldn't be offering to carve out an exemption for us if they weren't worried that we could kill their sweetheart deal to control the air traffic system.
"We have the safest, most efficient system in the world, with an equitable taxing system that can finance any reasonable modernization programs," Cebula said. "This nation can't afford an airline-dominated system serving just some 60 hub airports. If we all hang together, we can preserve our national aviation infrastructure serving communities large and small, where average citizens can afford to use GA for personal and business transportation to all the places the airlines ignore."
Earlier this week, Cebula also explained the deleterious effect of user fees on the GA transportation system to airport executives gathered for the annual American Association of Airport Executives convention.
October 19, 2006