The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ran into a wall of unyielding skepticism during a Thursday hearing before the House Aviation subcommittee on the agency's funding proposal. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President Phil Boyer told panel members they were right to be skeptical; that the FAA has manufactured the funding crisis they claim to be addressing with the proposal.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an ex officio member of the subcommittee, told the FAA in his opening statement, "We're going to do right by aviation."
He said the subcommittee and full committee would listen to everyone affected by the proposal, including the FAA itself. After that, he said, "I intend to give it a decent burial."
During his five-minute presentation to the panel, Boyer noted that all segments of the aviation industry recognize the need to modernize the air traffic control system.
"Let's take user fees off the table," he said, " and 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."
Ironically, Boyer and the leader of the airline opposition were seated side-by-side throughout the panel's testimony.
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.
During Thursday's hearing, Dr. Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office and U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel each told members of the aviation subcommittee that the current funding system does generate enough money to fund the FAA's modernization efforts.
This validates AOPA's analysis last year of the FAA's next five-year revenue stream, which indicates 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.
Subcommittee members from both sides of the aisle expressed concerns about the proposed funding system and estimates that it will generate some $600 million less than they current system would.
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 that 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