The Senate Commerce Committee has taken to heart much of what Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) members have told Congress about Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding. Aviation subcommittee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Ranking Member Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have introduced an FAA bill, Aviation Investment and Modernization Act of 2007, that responds to many pilot concerns but misses the fundamental AOPA principle of "no user fees for any segment of aviation."
"This bill is a lot better than the FAA's proposed legislation," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Our thanks to Senators Rockefeller and Lott, as they intend to keep piston-powered general aviation taxes right where they are today. But we have real concerns about the precedent-setting introduction of user fees and the impacts on our members who fly turbine aircraft."
Rockefeller and Lott propose telling the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for taxes, to keep the tax on aviation gasoline at 19.4 cents per gallon.
There would be no user fees for piston general aviation, nor would there be any increase in the existing fees the FAA charges for some services such as aircraft registration or pilot certificates. The bill would eliminate the FAA's proposed "congestion fee" for operations in Class B airspace. Unlike the FAA's legislation, which would drastically affect general aviation airports by cutting airport funding by almost $1 billion a year, the Senate bill would increase spending on airports above current levels.
But non-commercial turbine owners and pilots would get a tax increase and a user fee would be imposed when flying under instrument flight rules (IFR).
There would be a $25 per flight "Air Traffic Modernization" surcharge imposed on all flights. Piston-engine general aviation aircraft, turboprop aircraft "operating outside of controlled airspace," and military, public service, and air ambulances would be exempt from the user fee.
Rockefeller and Lott also propose increasing the jet fuel tax from 24 to 49 cents per gallon. The increase would be phased in over the next five years.
"As much as we like some parts of this bill, we're still opposed to the principle of user fees, even though piston general aviation is exempt for now," said Boyer.
"Once a 'fee' or 'surcharge' enters our funding system, we step onto the slippery slope, and it will only be a matter of time before fees trickle down to all of general aviation," Boyer said. "It's happened everywhere else in the world."
That concern preoccupies AOPA members as well. In a survey conducted this week, the majority of pilots - both those flying piston-powered and those flying turbine-powered aircraft - told AOPA that it should oppose the Senate bill.
The piston pilots' greatest concern was that the modernization surcharge would eventually apply to their flights. All pilots feared that the airlines would dominate decision-making on air traffic control modernization expenditures, and that Congress would lose authority over the aviation system.
Boyer again questioned the need for additional funding sources for the FAA. "We have yet to see a concrete plan and budget for ATC modernization," he said, "and the government's own experts have told Congress that the current funding system can easily provide the money that the FAA thinks it might need for its 'NextGen' program."
Boyer said that AOPA would be meeting soon with members of the Senate Commerce Committee to explain where pilots stand on the Rockefeller-Lott FAA funding bill.
"It is clear our members still have real difficulty with user fees on any segment of aviation," said Boyer.
The Rockefeller-Lott funding bill is one of at least three FAA reauthorization bills now working in Congress. The first bill out of the chute was the FAA's "Next Generation Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007." That bill, backed by the Bush administration and the airlines, proposed huge tax increases and user fees, but it was not well received by the aviation committees in the House and Senate.
The Rockefeller-Lott bill is the Senate Commerce Committee's alternative to the administration's bill. Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are also writing their own FAA reauthorization bill. While details of the House bill are not yet public, Boyer reiterated general aviation's opposition to any user fees in a meeting this week with House aviation subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.).
After the bills are formally introduced into Congress, there will be hearings, votes, and amendments. It's entirely probable that the final FAA reauthorization bills from the House and Senate will be different, so a conference committee will work out the differences and send a unified bill back to both the Senate and House for a final vote.
"AOPA will be there throughout the entire process," said Boyer. "We'll be working for the best FAA funding bill that gets the agency the money it truly needs without exorbitant tax increases and, most assuredly, without user fees."
With 411,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest civil aviation association, working to protect the interests of general aviation. Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. pilots are members of AOPA.
May 4, 2007