A major Chicago media outlet has decided that the facts support general aviation's position on the FAA funding debate.
The Sun-Times News Group editorial board (the editorial voice for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Southtown, and several other newspapers serving the greater Chicago area) recently met with a representative for the airlines and then later with AOPA President Phil Boyer. In the board's editorial following the meetings, it noted that the airlines and the FAA want "user fees on private planes to make them cough up more" toward the cost of the NextGen air traffic control modernization project.
"But general aviation and corporate jet advocates don't concede that they are not paying their fair share," said the editorial writers. "They say user fees will cripple private aviation — at great cost to smaller airports and rural communities that rely on such planes. Some of them believe the current taxes they and the airlines pay will be adequate to fund the new system; but if taxes have to go up, they favor an increase in the fuel tax that they now pay."
The editorial notes that the number of private aircraft will likely increase, placing greater demands on the ATC system. "They should bear more of the costs. And if user fees are so crippling, perhaps higher fuel taxes can be the way to get them to shoulder a greater share."
Said Boyer, "That's exactly why the GA community has endorsed H.R.2881, the House version of the FAA funding bill. We agree that the ATC system needs to be modernized, but we have always said that it could be done within the existing tax structure. And we're willing to accept an inflation-adjusted fuel tax increase to make it happen, which is what the House bill proposes to do."
This isn't the first time that the Sun-Times News Group editorial board has weighed the facts and sided with general aviation. They supported maintaining Chicago's "lakefront jewel" Meigs Field and roundly condemned Mayor Richard M. Daley after his midnight raid that destroyed the airport.
When the Finance Committee on July 12 holds its first hearing on the Senate's version of the FAA funding bill (S.1300), some important committee members are already primed to question the $25 per flight user fee.
The Republican committee leader, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), recently said at a town meeting that "with the letters and opposition by pilots and organizations, the administration and the airlines will find it very difficult to get any user fees enacted."
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said on his Web site, "While I agree that our nation's air traffic control system needs to be modernized, I am not convinced that the current tax structure needs to be overhauled. I also have concerns with the idea of the user fee because it would adversely affect our private and turboprop planes in Idaho and across the United States."
Other committee members who have already expressed opposition to user fees include Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
AOPA President Phil Boyer, along with National Business Aviation Association President Ed Bolen and General Aviation Manufacturers Association President Peter Bunce, met with Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on July 9 to express general aviation's support for the taxes and funding mechanisms contained in the House version of the FAA funding bill, H.R.2881.
Meanwhile, numerous Montana organizations and towns have joined the Alliance for Aviation Across America and have communicated their opposition to aviation user fees. Residents in the towns of Bridger City, Lewiston, and Red Lodge City hand-delivered city council resolutions opposing fees to Baucus on July 5.
Technically, the Finance Committee cannot remove user fees from the bill. But it does control taxes. And for the S.1300 numbers to work with a user fee, the committee would have to approve the recommended fuel tax break for the airlines and fuel tax increase for turbine GA aircraft.
After the Finance Committee completes its "markup" (hearings, debate, and possible amendments) of S.1300, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may schedule time for the full Senate to debate and vote on the bill.
If the Senate approves the bill, it will then go to a conference committee where legislators appointed from the Senate and the House of Representatives will reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of an FAA funding bill. The result (called a conference report) is sent back to both chambers for final votes and, if approved by both, then sent to the president for his signature before the bill can become law.