The Bush administration's FAA funding proposal continues to slowly make its way through lawmaking's procedural hoops. The latest stops included hearings held by committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was at these hearings that we first publicly learned what key representatives and senators thought about higher fuel taxes and user fees as a means of financing the airspace system of the future.
Many lawmakers felt as AOPA does: The current combination of fuel taxes and general fund contributions is perfectly adequate to continue building on a $2 billion-plus surplus in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, and to finance modernization of the nation's air traffic control system — and do it fairly, without sacrificing safety, impeding air traffic, or ceding an element of control to airline interests.
The hearings involved committees we've discussed before (see " FAA Funding Debate: Point of Order," March Pilot) and a great deal of testimony by representatives from a number of interest groups. Paramount among them, of course, was AOPA — your association — represented by AOPA President Phil Boyer. AOPA, with its 411,000-strong membership backing, is the principal voice arguing against the FAA's funding proposal, and the most powerful general aviation lobby in Washington, D.C. (see www.aopa.org/testimony/).
As of this writing, three hearings have been held. Although it's not possible to go into extensive detail about each, we'll summarize the key events. Those wanting to look over the details of the hearings can go to the appropriate committee Web sites. For the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee (hereafter referred to as the "House subcommittee"), see http://transportation.house.gov/aviation/ and click on Hearings. For the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee (the "Senate subcommittee"), see http://commerce.senate.gov/subcommittees/aviation.cfm.
The star witness in this hearing was FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who, of course, advanced the administration's line of thinking in support of fuel-tax hikes and user fees. Namely that the aviation trust fund is running out of money, that the ATC system is inefficient, that its modernization will add expenses, and that hordes of newly certified very light jets will burden the airspace and impair the smooth flow of traffic.
But Blakey didn't make much of an impression on the committee members. As Blakey attempted to defend the proposal, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) bluntly told her, "This proposal is dead on arrival."
This mood continued when Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) stated, "There is no way that I can come to the conclusion this user-fee proposal is fair, equitable, or that it will work."
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) emphasized that the proposal would actually raise about $600 million less in 2008 than the current tax system. He said, "I question the wisdom of moving to a new financing system that will not generate as much revenue as the current tax structure when we clearly need to make critical investments now to ensure that our nation's air traffic control infrastructure is robust for the future."
Costello kept cornering Blakey until she finally admitted that the current system would be able to raise enough money to fund what is being called the Next Generation Air Traffic Control Modernization Program.
Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) seemed to speak for the whole subcommittee when he said, "We're not in agreement with what you are proposing.... I think this is an unfair approach, an unwise approach, and I don't think we have to do it."
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) was especially vehement in his response. "I know there's going to be a gas-tax hike," he said. "But then I hear 70 cents a gallon and it just floors me. I can't tell my pilots back home about this because I'm going to get pelted the moment I say it. It really, really disturbs me."
Graves, a general aviation pilot and AOPA member himself, added, "When I talk to some of the pilots out there, they ask me, 'What do I get for that?' What do I say — that this will make the skies safe because nobody will fly anymore?"
These opening shots are revealing. At a time when you'd expect the minority party in Congress to be rallying behind administration initiatives, just the opposite seems to be happening.
This Senate aviation subcommittee hearing drew noteworthy comments from opposing points of view. Testifying at this hearing were representatives from the Air Transport Association (ATA, which represents airline interests), the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE, representing airport interests), the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA, which represents air traffic controllers), and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA, which represents business aviation).
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), although not a member of the subcommittee, appeared in the hearing room out of a concern for general aviation's interests. Inhofe is also an avid general aviation pilot and AOPA member.
"The United States has the safest and most efficient air transportation system in the world," Inhofe said. "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." Apparently referring to the funding proposal's inclination to privatize the control of airspace by allowing airlines to participate, he added, "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.... If this proposal is adopted, there will be a dramatic and immediate negative effect on general aviation."
Inhofe went on to say that general aviation contributes more than $100 billion annually to the economy, and that it is one of the few U.S.-based industries making a positive contribution to the nation's balance of trade.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, then sounded a sour note. In support of a hike in taxes and new user fees, he said, "Every one of you is going to have to pay more, do more, give more. It's time we do something grand. You're all going to pay more."
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the subcommittee, made a call for compromise. The administration's funding proposal is being "assaulted and attacked by everybody...are there areas where you could reach accommodation with each other?"
Judging by the atmosphere in the hearing room, there would be slim chance of that. But it did seem as though all attending did agree that the ATC system needs modernization. Andy Cebula, AOPA's executive vice president of government affairs, noted another shift in the wind. "In this hearing, there seemed to be less enthusiasm for user fees," he said. "The thousands of letters our members have sent to Congress are beginning to have an impact."
Meanwhile, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee — the parent committee of the aviation subcommittee — summed up his attitudes on the funding proposal. "I am troubled by the proposal to drastically increase the general aviation fuel tax and substantially cut the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding level." Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the ranking Republican on the committee, said, "I echo Sen. Inouye's concerns with the proposal."
Inouye said he'd work with Rockefeller and Lott to bring about a bipartisan FAA funding bill that could be brought to the full Senate.
This subcommittee meeting featured testimony by AOPA's Boyer, who addressed the growing groundswell of skepticism concerning the administration's funding proposal. "You're right to be skeptical," Boyer told the panel. "The FAA has manufactured the funding crisis they claim to be addressing.
"There is no funding crisis. The current system pays for modernization with money left over," Boyer said. Saying that all segments of the aviation industry recognize the need to modernize the ATC system, he went on to make a proposal.
"Let's take user fees off the table," he said, "and get on with the real issues at hand through a productive, meaningful discussion on how to strengthen the nation's airports and modernize ATC."
Support for Boyer's assertion that adequate funding already exists came from two other testimonials at the hearing. Both Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office and U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel told the subcommittee that the current funding system does generate enough money for the FAA's modernization programs. This supports AOPA's analysis, which indicates that the FAA could spend about $20 billion on ATC modernization over a five-year reauthorization time frame — and still end up with an uncommitted surplus of more than $7 billion in the aviation trust fund.
Citing the FAA's inclination to use other nations' adoption of user-fee funding methods, Boyer said, "Seventy percent of the world's general aviation aircraft and the majority of the world's active and certificated general aviation pilots live in America, which makes comparisons of our air transportation system to other nations' almost impossible."
There are adverse safety implications of user fees, Boyer said. To back this up, he mentioned the sorts of fees and penalties levied on European pilots. As demonstrated by a flight videotaped live in Germany, a pilot in deteriorating weather would face $1,000 in approach fees and fines if the decision was made to divert to an alternate airport with a safer, precision approach (see " Euro-Fees Fears").
"In this way, user-fee pricing schemes and congestion-management rules aimed at deterring GA pilots from fully using the airspace system can affect safe pilot decision making," Boyer said.
Finally, Boyer said an AOPA survey of its 411,000 members revealed that if the funding proposal — with its 50 cents per gallon tax increase — goes into effect "nine out of 10 members have told us that they will reduce or curtail their flying."
To read a copy of the statement Boyer submitted to the subcommittee, and see a video of his testimony, visit the Web site.
Judging by the fallout from this hearing, subcommittee members shared Boyer's views. Several issued unusually frank assessments.
Hayes said the FAA was "gulping the airline Kool-Aid. Our focus should be on making the system work better. It's working pretty darn well now. We don't need a sledgehammer, which is this very costly system, to drive a carpet tack."
"Giving the FAA the right to set user fees is a blank check," said Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), another AOPA member.
"If the FAA proposal is adopted, it would devastate the economy of south-central Kansas," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), who refers to his district as the "Air Capital of the World," and where Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Learjet, Boeing, and many aviation subcontractors call home.
More such hearings have yet to be held, but you get the idea. AOPA's arguments are having an effect. The more congressmen and senators become familiar with the FAA funding proposal, the more wary they become.
According to AOPA's Cebula, there may come a time when your help will be called upon in our effort to turn back this proposal. "As the funding proposal moves through various committees, AOPA will be contacting more of our members, and asking them to write to specific senators and representatives at the proper time, when additional letters will be most effective," he said.
As always, stay tuned to these pages for more updates on the FAA funding proposal, and be sure to check AOPA's Web site dedicated to this issue. To see the impact of user fees in Australia, read " A Cautionary Tale," on page 103.
E-mail the author at [email protected].