Phil Boyer has served as president of AOPA since January 1991.
As this is the last issue of AOPA Pilot of the year, I thought it timely to bring members a progress report on the FAA funding legislation, better described as the battle over "user fees." The last time pilots were so aware of congressional activity with regard to aviation was in the early 1990s concerning the "product liability" bill. It is interesting to note that both of these major initiatives were defined by two words. An AOPA member at a recent event emphasized the severity of our current issue by saying the two words this time around are both four-letter words!
We've come a long way since my January 2007 column identifying that the FAA Reauthorization bill would be our biggest issue for the year (see " President's Position: The New Year," January Pilot). This is the legislation that funds the FAA for a fixed period (the last bill was for 10 years) and pays for modernization of the air traffic control system (NextGen), airport improvements, and daily operations of the aviation system. If we consider the first of this year as the takeoff phase of our flight, at this moment we are nearing our destination. Our flight log shows that the route has been somewhat turbulent. In September the House and the Senate took significant steps toward final passage of the legislation. That progress quickly turned into a holding pattern in the U.S. Senate and little has occurred since.
AOPA lobbied intensely to defeat last-ditch attempts by the airlines and the FAA to include a $25 user fee for GA operations into terminal areas, under the guise of taxes. During the meetings leading up to Committee vote on aviation taxes, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel admitted that he was misled by reports that GA was a major cause of delays at hub airports, but only after House aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello provided Rangel the facts, not airline fiction. Costello was armed with a white paper AOPA prepared using government statistics, not airline lies, about the 35 most congested airports and the low GA use of these facilities. Armed with the truth, the House Ways and Means Committee then approved the Airport and Airway Trust Fund Financing Act (H.R.3539) that rejects user fees. It funds modernization with an avgas tax increase from 19.3 cents to 24.1 cents per gallon and Jet A increase from 21.8 cents to 35.9 cents per gallon.
In late September, the House of Representatives combined these tax provisions with the funding provisions into one bill supported by AOPA, and passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (H.R.2881) by a vote of 267 to 151. The nay votes mainly came from members of Congress who don't support user fees, but stood by President Bush and his threats to veto the legislation because of two labor provisions. A prime example was Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who did a 180-degree turn from leaning toward privatization to bi-partisan support of H.R.2881. However, Mica voted against the bill when it came to the House floor, since it reopens the contract between the air traffic controllers and the FAA. The other labor element expands the ability of employees at certain cargo carriers to strike as a unit. Mica is indicative of some of GA's strong supporters whose vote doesn't mean they are not with us in the battle against user fees.
Responding to months of AOPA lobbying against user fees, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill supported by AOPA that increases Jet A from 21.8 cents to 35.9 cents per gallon while maintaining the existing level of tax on avgas at 19.3 cents per gallon. The finance bill raises the funds necessary for modernization (about $400 million per year) that negate the need for the $25 user fee, which was approved by a narrow margin last spring by the Commerce Committee. During markup, an amendment offered by Senators John D. Rockefeller and Trent Lott (sponsors of the user fees in S.1300) to increase the tax on Jet A to 51 cents per gallon failed by voice vote. The finance bill will be merged with the broader FAA reauthorization bill (S.1300) when the bills are brought up for Senate floor consideration.
At this point, the FAA's bill, introduced early in the year, and its associated user fees and 50-cents-per-gallon tax increase, is essentially dead. Therefore, the full House has passed H.R.2881, which AOPA supports, and both Committees in the Senate have passed bills that conflict with it—one with the $25 fee, and one without. This must be resolved by the two committees prior to the bill going to the full Senate for a floor vote.
Because the existing funding and taxes were set to expire after September 30, 2007, Congress extended these until mid-November and is expected to extend them through the end of the year. This could defer further action on the four-year bill until next year.
Plenty is at stake, including stable funding for airports, as well as planning and investments in ATC modernization, while the Senate ponders the conflict between Commerce and Finance. As demonstrated in the House bill, AOPA has been willing to accept a reasonable increase in general aviation fuel taxes to avoid a precedent-setting user fee.
We are not yet cleared for approach, GA is in the terminal area, but there's convective weather to circumnavigate between our present position and the final approach fix for landing. We have the fuel to see this into next year, if needed, and most important, we have you as concerned pilots and owners who have proven more than once during this year's flight you are willing to make your voice known on this issue each time we ask.