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Airlines drop user fee demand

It was a startling turnaround. The airlines abandoned their demand for user fees, and their "blip is a blip" contention that all aircraft impose the same costs on the air traffic control system, during a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee July 19. All that was left was their demand that they pay less and general aviation pay more.

Delta Airlines COO James Whitehurst, speaking for the Air Transport Association (ATA, which represents most of the nation's airlines), proposed a new ticket tax that would include a fixed departure tax per passenger, plus a per passenger tax based on distance traveled. "It's not a user fee," Whitehurst said.

"Implicit in the ATA proposal is the acknowledgment that it is the number of people in the aircraft that contributes significantly to air traffic control system costs, and it's those people — not the aircraft — that benefit from ATC services," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "A blip is not a blip."

"What you have come up with is certainly worth considering," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) of the ATA passenger ticket tax. "It would mean you would pay a little less than under the current system, but the formula is adjustable."

Several of the witnesses at the hearing made the point that it was airline practices that created both the majority of system costs and air traffic delays.

Eclipse Aviation CEO Vern Raburn told the subcommittee, "It is precisely the [airline] hub-and-spoke system that drives the majority of system costs, not the introduction of very light jets.... A triple-seven on approach to JFK takes up a heck of a lot more airspace than an Eclipse 500 on approach to Republic Airport 15 miles away."

"What drives delays and the volatility of the air traffic control system is peak scheduling at 25 or 30 major airports around the country," said FedEx Chairman Frederick W. Smith. Whitehurst acknowledged that the tracons (radar approach control facilities) at the major airports had been built to meet the airlines' needs and that the airlines should pay the fixed costs of operating those tracons.

Meanwhile, Manitoba Recycling CEO Richard Shine, owner-pilot of a small turboprop and "proud AOPA member," summed up general aviation's position. "We support modernization and are willing to pay for it, but we want to pay at the pump, not through user fees or new taxes."

He said that the House FAA funding bill, H.R.2881, "gets it right." H.R.2881 would generate additional money from general aviation to help modernize the air traffic control system.

"I don't understand why anyone would want to replace the simple payment system we have with one based on user fees or some new unproven formula," said Shine.

July 20, 2007

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