AOPA President Phil Boyer leads a staff of talented individuals who work for general aviation on Capitol Hill.
It was one of the best phone calls I've ever received. Last month House aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) called me at home to tell me the details of the FAA funding bill that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would vote on the next day. The late-evening call was great news in the FAA financing issue, which continues to be the most talked-about topic in aviation.
No air traffic control user fees! No changes to the funding mechanism that has served aviation so well for nearly 40 years. And a recommendation for a very modest "cost of living" adjustment in the fuel tax.
The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (H.R. 2881) is absolutely the best of the three bills pending in Congress.
The leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and aviation subcommittee refused to be bullied by the airlines or accept the FAA's claims of poverty. They took a reasoned, rational look at what needed to be done and how to pay for it. They gave the FAA more than it asked for with a bipartisan bill covering the next four years.
Nearly $13 billion would be available for ATC modernization (NextGen) and other FAA capital improvements, more than $1 billion beyond what the administration proposed.
Airports would get $15.8 billion for improvements — some $4 billion more than the administration's proposal. The committee adjusted funding formulas to ensure that smaller general aviation airports — which have no other significant source of capital improvement money — receive more of these Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds.
Closer to your wallet, there would be a modest increase in the fuel tax. Jet fuel taxes would increase from 21.8 to 30.7 cents per gallon, and aviation gasoline taxes would go from 19.3 to 24.1 cents per gallon. That's less than a nickel increase for avgas and it is based on the rate of inflation since the last reauthorization in 1998. It's a price worth paying to take our aviation system into the future. And it's a whole heck of lot better than the 263-percent tax increase and user fees that the FAA wanted.
But although the committee demonstrated that the current funding system is more than adequate to pay for modernization and the "transition to satellite-based navigation" (funny, I could have sworn we were already using GPS to navigate), it had concerns about the FAA's ability to manage yet another modernization project.
The FAA wants a contractor to build and operate the ADS-B system (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, the so-called backbone of NextGen), much like it did with the flight service system. But taking sharp note of the current problems with Lockheed Martin's AFSS operations, the bill directs the FAA to insert provisions into the ADS-B contract to ensure uninterrupted service.
And the committee did not ignore current flight service station problems, either. They told the FAA it must do a better job of monitoring both AFSS safety and customer service issues. And aviation subcommittee Chairman Costello told me he's going to push for even stronger controls.
The bill also proposes increased or new charges for specific FAA services, such as aircraft registration or certificate issuances. We're not as pleased about that part of the bill, but in reality, the charges are no different than what most states do for driver's licenses or boat and car registration. As I write this, we're still going through the bill line by line, but recognizing that legislation is always compromise, nothing at this point dampens our enthusiasm for this forward-looking FAA funding-reauthorization bill.
The bill will move to the Ways and Means Committee, which will act on the fuel tax increase recommendation, and ultimately to the full House for a vote.
But there could be a problem, and that's the controller contract issue. After the bill was introduced, the committee voted to add an amendment that would restart collective bargaining between NATCA and the FAA. That prompted a veto threat from the administration, even though all of the Democrats and nearly half of the Republicans on the committee voted for the amendment.
Now, about those other bills. Even though the administration continues to push it, the FAA's bill is all but dead.
The Senate's bill (S.1300) has moved from the Commerce Committee to the Finance Committee. It addressed a lot of our concerns, but two things make it unacceptable for general aviation: a $500-million-a-year tax break for the airlines and the $25-per-flight ATC "modernization surcharge" for turbine-powered aircraft. A user fee by any other name is still a user fee, and once the FAA starts charging some for air traffic control services, it will only be a matter of time before it charges everyone.
So we still have a long way to go before we have an FAA funding bill that we can live with. And our airline opponents are not giving up in their attempts to reduce their taxes and put the financing burden on you.
As I told AOPA staff two years ago, the FAA funding battle is a marathon, not a sprint. With this House bill, we've made the halfway mark with a great time, but there are plenty of obstacles between us and the finish line of an FAA funding bill that protects and advances the interests of all aviation segments.