Ground FAA Plan to Make Small Planes Pay More Fees
July 29, 2009
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    Sep. 16–Who should pay more to maintain America’s highways, the owner of a car or the owner of an 18-wheel truck? The truck owner, most motorists would say. A truck takes a much greater toll on the road.

    Now, who should pay more for America’s air-traffic-control system the owner of a Boeing 747 commercial airliner or the owner of a seven-passenger Cirrus jet?

    That’s the question at the heart of a key Washington debate, one that has flown “under the radar” until now but is starting to soar into public view. That’s because Congress must answer the question to let the Federal Aviation Administration get moving on a long-awaited project: the upgrade of America’s antiquated air traffic control system.

    In our view, the airlines like the trucks should pay the lion’s share. But before we explore that conclusion, here’s some background.

    The FAA’s authorization to operate expires at the end of this month, so FAA officials want Congress to pass a new authorization bill. But this bill packs an added wallop because it starts to draw forth the $15 billion the FAA needs to upgrade America’s air-traffic-control system.

    Marion Blakely, FAA administrator, “argues that Congress should change the current formula of fees and taxes that pay for air-traffic-control services and airport infrastructure because FAA data show it currently weighs too heavily on commercial airlines,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

    “Blakey says corporate jets and other private aircraft should be charged user fees to more fairly distribute the burden.

    “A bipartisan Senate bill, passed by the Commerce Committee, would impose a $25 fee on each flight, regardless of the aircraft’s size. In contrast, a House bill, passed by the Transportation Committee, would increase fuel taxes.”

    And that’s where the issue stands.

    Small numbers such as “a $25 fee” might be deceiving. In fact, when coupled with other changes in the payment plans, the net effect of the changes would be to shift nearly $2 billion in costs from the airline industry to general aviation.

    Furthermore, “despite the importance of rural airports to the nation’s infrastructure, the airline-backed FAA bill slashes funding for the Essential Air Service Program and the Airport Improvement Program,” reports a general-aviation interest group, the Alliance for Aviation Across America.

    The bill “eliminates funding for the Small Communities Air Service Program,” too. Rural and small-city airports in North Dakota and Minnesota rely heavily on those programs and might not stay open without them.

    The alliance favors the House bill’s fuel-tax approach over the Senate bill’s user fees. As on the nation’s highways, fuel taxes offer a quick and convenient way to have users pay in proportion to their mode of transportation’s impact and size.

    True, this means the airlines would keep on paying a disproportionate share of the system’s expenses, as they do today.

    But it’s also true that the airlines generate a disproportionate share of the system’s costs. Air-traffic control basically is designed to accommodate the airlines’ needs. So, when rush hour arrives at the airlines’ “hub” airports and airline traffic backs up, air-traffic control stations ramp up their own operations in response.

    In this way, the airlines’ “hub and spoke” system puts much greater stress on air-traffic-control operations than do small aircraft. As a letter-writer to the Atlanta newspaper put it: “The next time you are waiting at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (in Atlanta) to take off, look around and tell me how many corporate jets you see ‘taking up space.’ The answer is most likely zero.”

    By the way, the Alliance for Aviation Across America counts as members some 3,000 businesses, rural and farm organizations, charity groups and individuals. The member organizations include the League of Rural Voters, the National Association of State Aviation Officials, the National Agricultural Aviation Association, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council and so on.

    They believe the nation’s air-traffic control system should be upgraded without unduly hurting rural America. Congress should share that belief and act upon it, too.

    Tom Dennis for the Herald

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    Date: 2007-09-16