Phil Boyer has served as president of AOPA for more than 15 years. He has helped defeat airline-supported user fees three times.
It took more than two years to build, but the severe storm of the FAA's proposal for user fees and huge tax increases has now unleashed its fury on pilots. Although the FAA administrator has been quoted as saying there have been nearly two years of consultation with our aviation stakeholders in developing the plan, it was the most one-sided conversation I have witnessed in my tenure as AOPA's president. Sadly, the "Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007" proposal is nothing less than the government backing away from the safest and most efficient air transportation system in the world, setting in motion the steps toward privatizing the air traffic control system.
Now that we are flying in this storm let me review the essential elements of the FAA's plan. The center of this historic low-pressure system is the creation of user fees for ATC services. AOPA adamantly opposes the implementation of user fees for any segment of the aviation community because it places control in the hands of FAA bureaucrats and the airlines by diminishing, and ultimately eliminating, congressional oversight of the nation's air transportation system. As the article " FAA Funding Debate: Euro-Fees Fears," on page 83 in this issue, clearly illustrates, user-fee systems, whether now or in the future, are bad for general aviation. Like an imbedded thunderstorm, the proposal attempts to mislead pilots by primarily targeting the airlines and other commercial aviation users; however, anytime you as a general aviation pilot flew into Class B airspace you would be subject to a user fee. The amounts of these fees are not specified, but the FAA administrator has virtually given carte blanche to establish and raise the fees.
But it gets worse, much worse — grapefruit-size hail pummels us in the form of a tax increase of more than 50 cents per gallon on avgas! AOPA member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said it best in a House aviation subcommittee hearing the day the proposal was launched: "This proposal just floors me." For the record, the tax on avgas would increase from the current 19.4 cents per gallon to 70.1 cents per gallon, and the tax on jet fuel would escalate from 21.8 cents per gallon to 70.1 cents per gallon. Nine out of 10 AOPA members have told us that this would reduce, curtail, or end their flying. Clearly, we must quickly maneuver out of this situation.
The FAA has attempted to argue that changes from the current excise taxes on passengers and a reasonable tax on aviation fuel are needed to pay for the Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control system. AOPA argues that today's tax system, like the proven techniques for avoiding bad weather, can provide the money. Ironically, the administration's own plan provides less money than staying with the current taxes, some $500 million less! Based on projections using Office of Management and Budget data, the FAA can be funded using the existing system of aviation taxes. The radical changes proposed by the FAA are not needed to keep the U.S. aviation system the safest and most efficient in the world. At the same time, the traditional support for this system from general taxpayers, the general fund, is also to be reduced. It's ludicrous to back away from the economic engine that our country's robust aviation system powers. The direct and indirect benefit of aviation to America represents 9 percent of our gross domestic product.
One other alarming element of the FAA proposal is a proposed cut in airport funding. We all know how important it is to have alternate airports when flying in bad weather, yet the administration is asking for a nearly $1 billion reduction. And the most important airports for GA, the small community airports that connect rural airports in our country, would lose an entitlement of $150,000 annually, which has kept many airports open and economically sound. This is incomprehensible if we are to have a viable air transportation network for the nation.
Like wind shear on final approach, the administration proposal must be avoided. That is why your association has mounted an all-out assault to have Congress reject this proposal and enact reasonable legislation that will finance air traffic control modernization, improve airports, and support the FAA. We have a battle plan, and it's much more sophisticated than just asking all of you to write to your congressman or senator immediately. AOPA's plan calls for bringing pressure to bear on certain members of Congress at specific times. In the coming months, each of you will be called to help, but in a highly segmented fashion. And when the final bills are up for vote by the entire Congress, we will issue a national call to action. Much of our interaction with you will be electronic, since we now live in that age. AOPA Online and our weekly electronic newsletters will be vital in communicating with you. If we don't have your e-mail address be sure to register through a special Web form since we will be contacting members in specific congressional districts and states as we advance on our flight plan.
The power of more than 410,000 members/pilots will see us through this storm, as it has in the past. No one will be happier than your hardworking staff when we break out in clear weather and see the runway.