Statement of Senator James M. Inhofe
United States Senate Commerce Committee
March 8, 2007
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts on the Administration's proposed "Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007."
As you know, I have a little bit of experience when it comes to drafting major pieces of transportation legislation. Accordingly, I have a pretty fair idea of what you are hearing from users of the aviation system and the challenges you face in trying to balance all the needs and desires with the realities of limited resources. I also have some experience in the aviation industry. I am an active commercial instrument rated pilot with over 50 years of flying. Thus, I am not only interested in the proposal before you in my capacity as a U.S. Senator from a state that is home to a major airline's maintenance facility, another major airline's reservation facility and an active and vibrant general aviation community, but also as a frequent user of the system myself.
I believe this is the third time in my congressional career that a "user fee" system has been proposed to "fix" our aviation infrastructure. Each time I have strongly opposed it and will do so again today. The United States has the safest and most efficient air transportation system in the world, moving more aircraft and more people than the rest of the world combined. About 10 years ago, I flew a twin engine Cessna 414 around the world recreating the same flight of Wiley Post 60 years earlier. I can assure you from first hand experience that our aviation system is second to none and is not broken. Congress is being asked to dismantle the time-tested aviation financing system for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.
The need to keep improving our air traffic control system to increase safety and expand capacity is without question. But I fail to understand how this proposed user fee system will achieve that important goal. User fees in the form of excise taxes are the appropriate and cost-efficient way for all aviation users to support the system.
Despite what some believe, our aviation infrastructure is inherently governmental and thus maintaining the historical level of general fund contributions to the system is critical and Congressional oversight is essential.
I have seen credible analysis that indicates the Administration's proposal will result in less money, not more, for aviation. Furthermore, because the "fees" can be adjusted by an unaccountable board, it will be impossible to accurately predict what the fees will be for users of the system. Congressional management and oversight of FAA spending and programs is needed to protect the users. Again, as I read the proposal, these fees can be adjusted at the discretion of the Administrator and the outside board without Congressional oversight!
I have reviewed the Administration's cost accounting study and seriously question their results. In particular, the 360% increase in fuel taxes for general aviation is completely unacceptable. I know what is behind it. this attitude that there are so few pilots you can get away with anything, I would like to see someone propose a 360% increase on motor fuel taxes and see if that is accepted. In 2006, the Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association (AOPA) did a survey of its members and found that almost 9 out of every 10 members would reduce their flying if the fuel tax increased to 70 cents per gallon. We nearly killed the general aviation industry by uncontrolled tort claims. But thankfully, due to the work of this subcommittee, under the Leadership of former Senator Nancy Kassenbaum, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the General Aviation Revitalization Act which turned the industry around. General Aviation now contributes over $100 billion annually to the economy and accounts for 1.3 million high-skill, high-wage jobs in professional services and manufacturing. Furthermore, it is one of the few, U.S. based industries that actually makes a positive contribution to our balance of trade payments. Why we would consider destroying that is beyond my understanding.
Make no mistake, if this proposal is adopted, there will be a dramatic and immediate negative effect on general aviation.
For 27 consecutive years I have attended Air Venture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin which is the single biggest general aviation air show in the world. Contrary to what some believe, people involved in general aviation are not highly paid corporate executive who see flying as a weekend hobby. Rather what visitors to Air Venture quickly realize, the general aviation community is made up hard working individuals of all income levels. General Aviation is also critical to small business viability and a critical transportation means for many in the nation. In fact, 70% of all general aviation flight hours are for business. This includes, but is not limited to, farming/ranching, search and rescue, fire fighting, law enforcement, news, traffic and weather reporting, emergency evacuation, medical transportation, on demand charter and shipping. As a former small businessman myself, I know that increased operating costs can not always be passed on to the customer. Many times, the small businesses must absorb them.
In addition to increased fuel taxes, the FAA proposal will subject all users of the system to substantial increases in fees for: aircraft registration, airmen certificates, medical certificates, certificates for flight schools and training centers, certificates for repair states and maintenance technical schools, designee apportionment and training.
Although I do not currently have the pleasure of serving with you on the Commerce Committee, I did serve on the relevant committee in the House and believe strongly that both committees play a critical role in keeping our aviation system the best in the world. I implore you not to give up the right and responsibility to oversee that system by abdicating that role to an unaccountable outside board. As you draft your bill, I would urge you to consider that the current system and many of the proposed system upgrades are designed for commercial airline operations. General Aviation is only an incremental user of the system. Stifling general aviation by imposing a crippling tax increase may help with congestion because general aviation will no longer be viable and there will be a corresponding decrease in the contributions that general aviation makes to our economy. We know you are imposing a 360% increase on fuel, but you are also imposing another huge tax macerated as a fee increase. But not one member on this Committee knows how big of an increase, because the Administration has not given the information we need for the calculation.
A vibrant general aviation industry is an important part of overall aviation innovation. General aviation has been and continues to be the incubator for cutting edge aviation technology. Three quick examples of how general aviation is critical to innovation are:
So, while some may be eager to point to general aviation as not paying its fair share, I believe that an even handed examination of the facts demonstrates that is not true. Any changes to the current system needs to encourage and maintain general aviation and not unnecessarily destroy it by imposing unreasonable and unfair taxes upon it.
As you work on reauthorization, take the idea of user fees off the table. Then, the debate can occur over any changes or adjustments that may need to be made. I have worked with all sectors of the aviation community before and while there may not always be agreement all points, I do believe there is a way to reach consensus on a deal that benefits all.
Thank you for listening to my views and I look forward to working with you on ensuring that our aviation system not only remains the best and safest in the world but improves to meet increasing demand.