User fees for some will mean user fees for all.
That is the dire warning delivered by Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President Phil Boyer to an audience of pilots, aircraft owners, and industry leaders during a user fee forum this week at Oshkosh. Boyer joined leaders from the Experimental Aircraft Association, the National Business Aviation Association, General Aircraft Manufacturers Association, Cessna Aircraft Company, and Cirrus Design Corporation to discuss the very real threat of user fees for general aviation (GA).
"We've already seen it throughout the world wherever user fees have been imposed," said Boyer. "We don't want pilots in this country to hear a controller say, 'You're cleared to land as soon as I get your MasterCard number, expiration date, and PIN number.'"
In the United Kingdom, the fee is $30 for a flight service station consultation, plus an additional $5.31 for each forecast product used. For an FSS briefing in Germany pilots pay $1.50 per minute, in the Netherlands the cost is $1,000 for a private pilot knowledge test, and Austrian pilots pay $31 to fly an ILS approach and $70 to land after the approach.
"In my situation, it's actually cheaper to fly the whole family by airline to the United States, rent an aircraft for about 30 hours, and have a nice two-week vacation (including hotel and rental car costs) than flying the same amount of hours in Europe," wrote an Austrian pilot to AOPA President Boyer.
In New Zealand, the wife of a pilot tells of how her husband complained about the expense of getting a briefing and filing a flight plan. He was killed in a weather-related accident. He'd skipped the briefing and hadn't filed.
"That's the reality of user fees and their impact on general aviation around the world," Boyer told the Oshkosh audience. "That's what it could mean to all of you if we allow the user fee camel to stick its nose under the tent here in the United States."
The threat comes from the airline industry, specifically the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airlines' association. With the FAA's funding authorization up for renewal next year in Congress, the airlines are trying to take advantage of the situation to change the entire funding system, shift some of their costs to other users, and move Congress out of the picture.
The day before addressing the Oshkosh crowd, Boyer and ATA President Jim May argued their organizations' positions on user fees before the Florida Airports Council annual conference in Ft. Myers, Fla.
"I'm here to declare victory to Phil," May told the audience of airport managers and executives. "The airlines don't support user fees [long pause] for general aviation piston-engine aircraft."
"Jim and I agree on many things," Boyer responded, "but we have a fundamental disagreement on two things: user fees of any kind, and the necessity of congressional oversight of the FAA."
The airlines are trying to divide and conquer the GA community by proposing to exempt the majority of general aviation aircraft, piston-engine airplanes, from their user-fee plan, but Boyer reiterated that GA stands united.
"User fees for some will inevitably lead to user fees for all," Boyer said. "It's happened everywhere else in the world."
The Canadian reality proves that you can't compromise for special treatment.
With both the current and former presidents of AOPA's sister organization - the Canadian Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association - sitting in the audience, Boyer explained that when Canada privatized its air traffic control system (called Nav Canada), it created a "recreational aircraft" category that would be exempt from the user fees charged to others. For a seat on Nav Canada's board and an understanding that GA would continue to pay through the aviation fuel tax, GA accepted the deal.
But the Canadian government didn't. It refused to drop the fuel tax, and Nav Canada had to find another way for GA to pay. So now GA pays an annual fee, plus a fuel tax almost twice as high as the U.S. tax. But the tax money goes to the government, not Nav Canada, and the government spends it on things other than aviation.
But Nav Canada's board of directors (where the airlines have four times as many representatives as GA) recently determined that some users weren't paying their "fair share" and voted for "revenue neutral" rate adjustments - GA pays more, the airlines pay less.
"We must keep Congress as our board of directors for the FAA," said Boyer. "And Congress is who will have the final say in the user fee debate."
"The elections present a good opportunity for pilots to bring attention to the user fee debate at town meetings with their local representatives," Boyer exhorted the Oshkosh crowd. "Stay involved in this issue."
Boyer shared a letter from AOPA member Gary D. Lux with the audience. "Dear Phil, I recently returned from vacation in Italy. While there, I visited a GA/Commercial airport outside of Perugia, Italy. That's when the issue of user fees came into focus for me. It hit me like the kick from a mule between the eyes.
"I was shocked at what I didn't see. I didn't see an active FBO or a flight line full of GA aircraft waiting to take flight. Instead, I saw a padlocked FBO, one older model Cessna and a couple of much older singles that I didn't recognize. Except for the Cessna, they were all in pretty bad shape and it was obvious they hadn't been flown in years.
"I asked the only GA pilot/mechanic I could find what had happened to the Aero Club and where could I buy a sectional chart for the area. He said there was no place to buy the sectional, and the aero club had been abandoned because the pilots could no longer afford to fly.
"In broken English he explained, 'They charge too much to fly above 3,000 feet. So most of the pilots have gone to ultra-lights and fly below 3,000 feet now.'"
The user fee panel at Oshkosh included Boyer; NBAA President Ed Bolen; GAMA President Pete Bunce; Cessna Chairman, CEO, and President Jack Pelton; Cirrus President and CEO Alan Klapmeier; and EAA President Tom Poberezny.
With more than 408,000 members, representing nearly two-thirds of all pilots in the United States, AOPA is the largest, most influential aviation association in the world. AOPA has achieved its prominent position through effective advocacy, enlightened leadership, technical competence, and hard work. Providing member services that range from representation at the federal, state, and local levels to legal services, advice, and other assistance, AOPA has built a service organization that far exceeds any other in the aviation community.
July 26, 2006