On the heels of the Clinton administration's eleventh-hour call for aviation user fees, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has obtained a copy of yet another user-fee proposal from the conservative Reason Foundation. AOPA reiterated its opposition to this plan to "commercialize" the air traffic control (ATC) system, calling it "full of holes."
"All these user fee plans have the same common failings," said Bill Deere, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs. "User fees won't build more runways. User fees will raises prices for many and will cost more to collect. And user fees would give the air traffic control monopoly the power to impose taxes on the traveling public without the benefit of congressional representation or oversight."
There is no financial crisis that demands user fees, said Deere. "The recent AIR-21 legislation has provided sufficient funds to modernize ATC, increasing the FAA's budget $3 billion this year alone."
Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation recently issued a "final draft" of his proposal on "How to commercialize air traffic control." Several major airlines helped fund the proposal.
Commercializing ATC is not new ground for Poole. He's the author of previous proposals to charge user fees for basic air traffic control safety services. In the past, he has advocated charging general aviation pilots some $10 for each weather briefing and $18.50 to file a VFR flight plan.
"Despite attempts in this latest proposal to 'buy off' general aviation with initially lower user fees and seats on the ATC corporation board, the proposal is still full of unrealistic assumptions and suspicious data," said Deere. "On behalf of our pilot members, AOPA will oppose any attempts to bring this into legislation."
The Reason Foundation proposal would separate air traffic control from the FAA and create a "nonprofit, stakeholder controlled" ATC corporation, financed by user fees. Airlines and business jets would pay a "weight/distance" fee every flight for air traffic control services.
Piston-engine and turboprop general aviation aircraft (which Poole calls "recreational" aircraft) would pay an annual fee based on weight. For example, a single-engine Cessna 172 would be charged $250 a year, while a twin-engine Beech Baron would be assessed $965 a year to pay for the commercialized air traffic control system.
Poole claims that all users except business jets would pay less in user fees than they currently pay in fuel taxes. "But the numbers are suspicious when you examine them in detail," said Deere. "A Cessna 172 owner would have to fly more than 130 hours a year to save anything under this proposal."
Deere said that Poole never talked to AOPA about this current proposal, even though general aviation would be the largest "stakeholder" in the proposed ATC corporation.
"And we shouldn't be surprised that a plan developed with information and money supplied by major airlines would just so happen to reduce the taxes on those airlines," Deere added.
The proposal would abolish the general aviation fuel tax and pay for the flight service station system from the general fund. "Does anyone really believe Congress would remove a tax on pilots and then tax all Americans to pay for flight service stations?" Deere asked.
"He also claims that based on the experience of Canada and New Zealand, a commercialized ATC would be 'more efficient,'" said Deere. "What Mr. Poole fails to point out is that these countries operate systems that are only a fraction the size of the U.S. system. Even the Department of Transportation's inspector general has cautioned that the Canadian model won't necessarily work in the United States."
"The current system of excise taxes on aviation users is the most efficient way of funding air traffic control and other FAA functions," said Deere. "And air traffic control is first and foremost a safety service," said Deere. "Mr. Poole and other commercialization advocates seem to lose sight of that in their quest for market-driven 'efficiencies.'"
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., represents more than 365,000 pilots who own or fly three quarters of the nation's 206,000 general aviation aircraft. General aviation aircraft comprise 96 percent of the total U.S. civilian air fleet.
December 12, 2000