Radical changes to the way the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is funded are standing in the way of modernizing America's air traffic control system. That is the core message that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) delivered to Congress today in prepared testimony to the House Aviation subcommittee.
In his written statement, AOPA President Phil Boyer told how the FAA has spent the last two years manufacturing a funding crisis to justify a switch from a tried-and-true funding mechanism to a system of air traffic control user fees and huge increases in taxes on general aviation users that actually provides less money and has proven extremely detrimental to general aviation whenever it has been implemented anywhere in the world.
"[T]his is nothing less than the government backing away from a world-renowned air transportation system and setting in motion the steps toward privatizing the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system," Boyer stated.
"My request to you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, reject the calls for user fees for any segment of aviation [original emphasis] and the almost quadrupling of general aviation fuel taxes," said Boyer. "Then we can all get on with the real issues at hand through a productive, meaningful discussion on how to strengthen the nation's airports and modernize air traffic control."
The FAA is currently funded by a combination of fuel excise taxes, airline passenger ticket taxes, taxes on air cargo, and a contribution from the general tax fund.
No fewer than three government agencies have said that the current system is sufficient. Both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office have testified that ATC modernization can be accomplished under the current funding structure. And the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Transportation has stated that the current tax system can finance the FAA while increasing spending for the so-called Next Generation Air Transportation System as long as there is a general fund contribution.
In his prepared testimony, Boyer explained an AOPA financial analysis of the current structure that shows that the FAA could spend some $20 billion on ATC modernization over a five year reauthorization time frame and still end up with an uncommitted balance in the aviation trust fund of more than $7 billion.
The FAA has repeatedly pointed to other nations that have switched to a user fee-based funding mechanism. But Boyer told Congress, "Seventy percent of the world's general aviation aircraft and the majority of the world's licensed and active general aviation pilot population reside in America, which makes comparisons of our air transportation system to other countries' almost impossible."
He cited the safety implications of user fees and congestion-based pricing (another FAA proposal), highlighting the dilemma a general aviation pilot would face in Germany. There, a pilot faced with deteriorating weather conditions would face a $1,000 penalty for deciding for safety reasons to use a precision approach at an air carrier airport. "This is due," Boyer said, " to user fee pricing schemes and congestion management principles aimed at deterring general aviation pilots from using the services that end up affecting safety decisions."
Boyer also noted that a former proponent of a fee-based system in Australia attributes a 28-percent decline in general aviation activity over the past 20 years in that country to user fees. As Boyer's testimony noted, Dick Smith, the former head of Australia's Civil Aviation Authority, recently observed, "User pays (as we call it here) or the commercialization of Civil Aviation Safety Authority and Airservices, has been a disaster for general aviation in Australia and I believe the same will happen in the USA if it goes ahead."
Boyer told panel members that a survey of AOPA's 411,000 members bears that out. If the FAA funding proposal, with its user fees and 344-percent fuel tax increase, is approved, he said, "Nine out of 10 AOPA members have told us that...they will reduce or curtail their flying."
Boyer laid out five key assumptions and principles for the members of Congress:
AOPA, the general aviation community, the airlines, and the FAA all recognize the need to modernize air traffic control.
"Amazingly, these are points which almost all of us agreed need to be accomplished," Boyer said. "With user fees off the table, we can move forward on the real issues."
With approximately 411,000 members, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest aviation association. AOPA is committed to working with the FAA to find the most efficient ways to modernize air traffic control while at the same time protecting pilots from a user fee-based system that will inevitably stifle general aviation as it has in the rest of the world.
March 21, 2007