User fees. AOPA members hate them. And there was no doubt about that in the minds of any member of the Senate Commerce Committee when it came time to vote on an amendment that would have stripped the $25-per-flight air traffic control user fee—disguised as a "surcharge"—from the Senate's FAA funding bill.
Despite the extraordinary outpouring of phone calls from AOPA members, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 12 to 11 on May 16 to impose user fees for ATC services. This committee is the first of nearly a dozen political bodies that will weigh in on the FAA financing issue.
"As disappointing as this one vote is, I still consider it a win for the long term," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "In Washington, it's not always about the result but about how you play the game, and in this case pilots disrupted the airlines' attempt to smoothly have user fees pass."
Boyer noted that three days ago, no one would have believed that there was the slightest chance in knocking user fees out of the package.
"But with the help of AOPA members, we nearly turned it around in two and half days," said Boyer. "That sends a message to the rest of Congress, showing that there is strong support for our no-user-fee position.
"We're extremely grateful to Senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) for sponsoring this amendment and to the senators who supported them," said Boyer.
Even Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who cast the tie-breaking vote to keep user fees in the bill, did so with hesitation. Referring to the effect of user fees on aircraft flying in Alaska, he said he thought there was "a bit of unfairness" in the bill, but he wanted to send it to the Senate floor.
"That gives us the opportunity to build on the momentum started against user fees," said Boyer.
Boyer had high praise for the response by AOPA members.
"I can't begin to thank our members enough," he said. "Just one day before this critical vote, I asked you to call your senator. And thousands of you did. We know that the phone lines in nearly every office were jammed.
"That show of solidarity from the general aviation community did make an impression upon the senators and their staffs," Boyer continued. "While we're disappointed that general aviation lost this first round, we still have many more opportunities to eliminate user fees before the FAA funding bill goes to the president."
Sens. Nelson, Sununu, and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) fought valiantly for GA. Nelson made it clear that the current FAA funding system would be able to generate more than enough money to modernize the ATC system.
Noting that the Rockefeller-Lott FAA funding bill would give the airlines a tax break by eliminating its 4.3-cent fuel tax and replacing it with a $25-per-flight user fee on all turbine-powered aircraft flying in controlled airspace, Nelson asked, "Who do you want to pay? You have to make a choice; do you want it from the user fee or a continuation of the existing fuel tax on commercial aviation?"
Nelson said that Florida, like Alaska, depended upon GA, and that his entire state was covered by controlled airspace. Every turboprop flying point to point in Florida would pay the $25-per-flight fee.
And he wondered if the fee was the airlines' attempt to snuff small competitors such as DayJet, which provides on-demand, point-to-point air transportation.
Sen. Sununu said, "We don't need a new user fee. That's a new system, a new system for collection, a new system for invoicing, a new regulatory burden on general aviation."
Sen. Dorgan said the Rockefeller-Lott bill was good overall, "But I don't support the choice of user fee ... I think a fuel tax is a far better approach."
And fuel taxes will be under consideration in the Senate Finance Committee. "That committee also has a say on the FAA funding bill. That's where the taxes on aviation will actually be set," said Boyer.
The House will be writing its version of FAA funding legislation. "While we know that Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and many members of the committee are strongly opposed to user fees, aviation taxes and fees will ultimately be determined by the House Ways and Means Committee," said Boyer.
And legislation can be amended or changed at any point as it moves through Congress.
"We're still very much in the fight," said Boyer. "And our politically active members have sent a clear message to Congress: no user fees for any segment of aviation. Period."
May 16, 2007