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FAA Funding Debate

Airlines Attack

The airlines strut their "hot stuff" If any sense of community existed among segments of civil aviation, it's been seriously jeopardized by the FAA funding debate. Arguments over proposed methods of funding FAA's modernization plans now, more than ever, pit the airlines against general aviation.

The airlines strut their "hot stuff"

If any sense of community existed among segments of civil aviation, it's been seriously jeopardized by the FAA funding debate. Arguments over proposed methods of funding FAA's modernization plans now, more than ever, pit the airlines against general aviation. And the airlines are becoming increasingly strident in their arguments. Thank the airlines for making this debate a platform for invoking every unflattering stereotype to put general aviation interests on the defensive. AOPA is hard at work countering these efforts. To begin, let's review the basics of the debate.

What the airlines want

The airlines want a funding scheme that frees them of having to pay any fuel taxes, and decreases the taxes they collect from passengers — all at the expense of general aviation. Many of these principles are included in Senate bill S.1300 — the Senate's funding proposal. The airlines also want to dominate any FAA-industry decision-making panels contained in legislation, which would give them the power to open up more airspace to airliners, while restricting airspace access to general aviation.

What AOPA wants

AOPA supports the House of Representatives bill, H.R. 2881. This proposes inflationary adjustment increases in fuel taxes for piston-powered general aviation aircraft by 25 percent, to 24.1 cents per gallon and turbine powered aircraft by 41 percent, to 30.7 cents per gallon. The airlines would continue paying their current 4.3 cents-per-gallon fuel tax, as well as collect the existing passenger ticket taxes. There would be no user fees under this plan.

AOPA, and other major associations representing general aviation interests (united under the Alliance for Aviation Across America) believe H.R. 2881 is the right way to pay for upgrading airports and modernizing the air traffic control system. The fuel tax hike brings in more money, but proportionally. Those who fly more — business aircraft owners, and others actively flying for business — pay more. Using the existing Federal Excise Tax system will cover 77 percent of the FAA's funding requirements in the first budget year, with the general fund from taxpayers picking up the remaining amount in recognition of the benefit the nation receives from the aviation system. What's not fair are the airlines' arguments, and their characterizations of general aviation.

Who crowds the skies?

According to airline interests — represented by the Air Transport Association (ATA) — general aviation aircraft are clogging up the airways, and the situation will get worse once the new breed of very light jets (VLJs) makes its major-league debut. The ATA feels it's only right that general aviation be subject to higher fees and restrictions to make way for airliners.

But the fact is that it's the airlines themselves who are causing air traffic congestion and airport delays. Airliners crowd airports thanks to the hub-and-spoke system of air routes that the airlines have used since the late 1970s. Very few general aviation airplanes frequent these large airports.

And as for that huge VLJ influx, it's very doubtful that they'll darken the skies. VLJ manufacturers are understandably ebullient about the prospect of selling thousands of these new airplanes. But will there be 5,000-plus VLJs in the air by 2015, as the FAA has asserted? Not likely; 1,000 airplanes is a more realistic assumption.

Let's also not forget that the airlines have added to their own fleets, making added congestion a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to an August 13, 2007, Wall Street Journal article, the airlines grounded 385 of their larger jets, but added 1,029 regional jets to serve their more frequent and lucrative shorter route segments.

A concrete problem

The main traffic constriction is airport capacity, a problem that the FAA, the airlines, and AOPA identified years ago. While Congress has invested about $1.7 billion per year since 2000 to fund 13 new runways at air carrier airports, the airlines rush in to jam them full of more planes. So, airports built 30 or more years ago are experiencing delays simply because so many flights must wait their turns for gates and runways to become available for departures, arrivals, and for emplaning and deplaning passengers. This raises the core problem of the airlines' self-induced delays: Airlines schedule so many flights at peak times that there's no hope that all flights will depart — or arrive at their destinations — on time.

Finally, there's the biggest wrench in the air traffic system: weather. Ground stops and inflight diversions because of adverse weather account for the huge majority of flight delays — not an overabundance of general aviation airplanes. In fact, in the New York area, which is plagued by airline delays, general aviation operations are down by 9 percent since 2002.

Seat-back agitprop

The airlines are attempting to politicize their passengers. Delta, American, United, Northwest, and Southwest airlines have all published editorials in their seat-back vanity magazines. They advance the idea that general aviation is to blame for delays, but go further. One AOPA member wrote to say that on a Delta flight the captain came on the intercom to urge passengers to read an article in Delta's Sky magazine. The article mentioned the urgency of modernizing the ATC system, then went on to say that the airlines pay 92 percent of the cost of ATC operations, and only use 70 percent of system capacity. The article said the remaining capacity is used by corporate jets that require the same handling as commercial airliners but pay only a fraction of the cost. The article evidently failed to mention the higher fuel taxes paid by corporate turbine operators (21.8 cents per gallon), or the fact that general aviation operations play a vital part in the American economy, or that general aviation accounts for only single-digit percentages of traffic at most airline airports.

This kind of propaganda blitz shows just how desperate the airlines are. The unspoken truth is that the airlines, always operating on frail margins, are looking for a lot of slack in their overhead costs. Facing already-high fuel costs, the airlines are bracing for the next round of aircraft purchases to modernize their fleets. In a few short years, the airlines will be buying billions of dollars worth of Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Boeing 747-8s, Airbus A350XWBs, and various new regional jets. The prospect of filling their seats with passengers paying bargain fares, while filling their tanks with fuel at sky-high prices, must surely be a prime motivator to get the government on their side.

The CNN Airport Network ad

ATA ran an ad on the CNN Airport Network that further emphasizes the airlines' angst. Passengers cooling their heels at busy gate areas watched a cartoon that dragged out the hackneyed image of business aviation as catering to overindulged plutocrats.

A cartoon airliner says, "Hey, what's the holdup?"

Another cartoon airliner says, "Hotshot there [a small aircraft] is clogging up our skies."

With that — in a ridiculous scenario that never happens in the real world — the small airplane cuts in front of the airliner, saying "Coming through — I've got a foursome here with an early tee time."

"Under rules set in the 70s, they're only paying six percent of the taxes to run the air traffic control system," says the airliner. "Yo, mister hot stuff! You pay your fair share to strut around here!"

"Unfortunately partner, the way it works is we pay, and they play," says the other cartoon airliner. Again, an outrageous assertion since the airlines dominate flights into and out of major airports.

This is just a small sampling of the aggressive tactics being employed by the airlines in their attacks on general aviation. Their goal is clear — have Congress approve a tax bailout by shifting billions of dollars of their costs to general aviation. This in spite of the fact that general aviation pays 8.6 percent of the taxes into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, doesn't use large airports much at all (it accounts for less than four percent of operations at the 10 busiest airports in the nation), and already pays according to its usage via fuel taxes. Those "hotshots" employ thousands of workers, and account for untold millions of dollars worth of goods and services.

The cartoon airliners' anger at the smaller jets is revealing. It's almost as if the airlines know their lousy service and business practices can be their undoing. Airline executives, who should know better, are the real "hotshots." They give themselves millions in bonuses, benefits, and pay. Meanwhile, their employees endure layoffs, and pay- and pension cuts.

Does this argue for an airline-friendly funding bill? AOPA certainly doesn't think so. We'll keep you posted as the drama surrounding the resolution of the House and Senate versions of the bill continues as they make their way through the conference process — or not.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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