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Skeptical members of Congress skewer FAA funding proposal

Skeptical members of Congress skewer FAA funding proposal
Take user fees off the table, Boyer says

Phil Boyer testifies
AOPA President Phil Boyer testifies
while ATA President and CEO James
May looks on. (Photo by WINS.)

The FAA ran into a wall of unyielding skepticism with its funding proposal during a March 21 hearing before the House aviation subcommittee.

AOPA President Phil Boyer told panel members that they were right to be skeptical - that the FAA has manufactured the funding crisis they claim to be addressing with the proposal.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an ex officio member of the subcommittee, told the FAA in his opening statement, "We're going to do right by aviation."

He said the subcommittee and full committee would listen to everyone affected by the proposal, including the FAA itself. After that, he said, "I intend to give it a decent burial."

Huge avgas tax hike

During his five-minute presentation to the panel ( watch a video of the testimony), Boyer noted that all segments of the aviation industry recognize the need to modernize the air traffic control (ATC) system.

"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."

Ironically, Boyer and the leader of the airline opposition were seated side-by-side throughout the panel's testimony.

There is no funding crisis; current system pays for modernization with money left over

The FAA is currently funded by a combination of fuel excise taxes, airline passenger ticket taxes, taxes on air cargo, and a contribution from the general tax fund.

"With user fees off the table, we can move forward on the real issues."

During Thursday's hearing, Dr. Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office and U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel each told members of the subcommittee that the current funding system does generate enough money to fund the FAA's modernization efforts.

This validates AOPA's analysis last year of the FAA's next five-year revenue stream, which indicates that the FAA could spend some $20 billion on ATC modernization over a five-year reauthorization time frame and still end up with an uncommitted balance in the aviation trust fund of more than $7 billion.

Subcommittee members from both sides of the aisle expressed concerns about the proposed funding system and estimates that it would generate some $600 million less than the current system.

User fees and threefold tax increase would cripple GA

The FAA has repeatedly pointed to other nations that have switched to a user fee-based funding mechanism.

But Boyer told Congress, "Seventy percent of the world's GA aircraft and the majority of the world's licensed and active general aviation pilot population reside in America, which makes comparisons of our air transportation system to other countries' almost impossible."

"Nine out of 10 AOPA members have told us that...they will reduce or curtail their flying."

He cited the safety implications of user fees and congestion-based pricing (another FAA proposal), highlighting the dilemma a GA pilot would face in Germany.

There, as dramatically demonstrated in a live flight shown on AOPA's Web site, a pilot confronted with deteriorating weather conditions would face a $1,000 penalty for requesting a safer precision approach at an air carrier airport.

"This is due," Boyer said, "to user fee pricing schemes and congestion-management principles aimed at deterring GA pilots from using the services that end up affecting safety decisions."

Boyer also noted that a former proponent of a fee-based system in Australia attributes a 28-percent decline in GA activity over the past 20 years in that country to user fees: Dick Smith, the former head of Australia's Civil Aviation Authority, recently observed, "User pays (as we call it here) or the commercialization of Civil Aviation Safety Authority and Airservices, has been a disaster for general aviation in Australia, and I believe the same will happen in the USA if it goes ahead."

Boyer told panel members that a survey of AOPA's 411,000 members bears that out. If the FAA funding proposal, with its user fees and 344-percent fuel tax increase, is approved, he said, "Nine out of 10 AOPA members have told us that...they will reduce or curtail their flying."

FAA proposal a roadblock to reaching common goals

Boyer laid out five key assumptions and principles for the members of Congress:

  • 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.
  • Excise taxes, not user fees, are the appropriate and cost-efficient way for all aviation users to support the system.
  • Congress' direct management and oversight of FAA spending and programs should not be changed.
  • National transportation assets vital to the U.S. economy require a level of support from general tax revenues. The general fund contribution to FAA operations should be maintained at the historical average of 21.5 percent of the FAA budget.
  • Airports are as critical to the aviation transportation system as on and off ramps are to our federal highway system. Federal airport funding should be sustained at no less than the current levels ($3.7 billion).

AOPA, the GA community, the airlines, and the FAA all recognize the need to modernize ATC.

"Amazingly, these are points which almost all of us agreed need to be accomplished," Boyer said. "With user fees off the table, we can move forward on the real issues."

Read Boyer's written testimony.

Updated: March 21, 2007, 6:36 p.m. EDT

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