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FAA keeps beating the drum for higher taxes

FAA keeps beating the drum for higher taxes
As pilots know, forecasts can be unreliable

The drumbeat continues: Very light jets are going to darken the skies, more passengers mean lots more airplanes, the FAA funding system is so horribly broken that it can't possibly pay for fixes to solve an overloaded air traffic control system.

This time it was FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and her boss, Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, making the arguments at the FAA Forecast Conference on March 15 and 16.

"Manufacturers like Cessna and Eclipse are preparing delivery of thousands of new very light jets, with the potential to usher in the largest increase in air traffic since the 1960s," said Peters.

"If we don't get the stable financing we need, NextGen will be the solution to a problem that we anticipated and studied but failed to really address," said Blakey.

But do the administration's pronouncements represent prophecy or fallacy?

Looks like the latter. Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group Corp. told AOPA recently that the aircraft volume projections are unrealistic.

"VLJs will be a nice enhancement to the air charter system, but they won't have a huge impact on air traffic. The predicted demand for VLJs in the air taxi market is based on unrealistically low fares and unrealistically high utilization."

Aboulafia said that 600 to 800 business jets of all sizes would be added to the fleet each year. Nice growth, but not overwhelming.

The predicted growth in airline passenger numbers may not be as traumatic on the system - except perhaps in the passenger terminals - as the FAA predicts.

The airlines carried 741 million passengers last year, and they are "on course to carry one billion domestic passengers by 2015," said Peters.

A corresponding increase in the number of aircraft in the system? Perhaps not.

Airline departures last year were down 3.1 percent, while the number of passengers rose slightly less than 1 percent, according to Department of Transportation data.

"More people are flying on fewer flights," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs. "And other data indicate that even the regional airlines are moving to larger aircraft to fly more people with fewer aircraft."

And the contention that only a change in the FAA funding mechanism to higher taxes as well as user fees could fund air traffic control modernization?

"The FAA says that short-term NextGen projects would cost $4.6 billion over five years," said Cebula. "Assuming that the federal general fund continues to pick up a piece of FAA's budget, the government's own data show that the current funding system would provide $20 billion over the same time period from the aviation trust fund that could be used to pay for NextGen."

And while Administrator Blakey told the forecast conference that the FAA needed "stable financing" to pay for NextGen, "the truth is that this administration has tried to create instability by asking Congress for less money than the FAA needs to meet its obligations to airports and system users," said Cebula.

"They want to take many of the decisions out of the hands of Congress, but Congress has always come through with what the agency really needs. So what's unstable about that?"

March 16, 2007

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