By Steve Thompson
September 16, 2007
Tune in at 6 p.m. on almost any station across Utah and you will see similar stories: heroic citizens battling against massive wildfires across the state and beyond. While the battle is being fought on the ground, small plane pilots in the skies risk their own lives to save communities across Utah. Using small airports as easy access points, these pilots can respond quickly and can shorten turnaround time when minutes are crucial.
But the Air Transport Association and the major airlines are turning their backs on the pilots of small planes, small airports, and their contributions to rescues and safety operations across the country. In the face of mounting delays, cancellations, and airline mismanagement, the ATA has lobbied extensively in Washington, D.C., for a multimillion-dollar tax cut for the airline companies. Using the need to upgrade our air traffic control system as their bait, the airlines have pushed for Congress to implement a radical and unproven funding structure that would result in millions in kickbacks for the airlines while putting massive fees on the shoulders of small plane owners. The Senate Commerce Committee recently released a proposal called S1300 that would create a radical new user fee structure and dramatically raise the fuel tax on small plane operators. The airlines meanwhile will enjoy a lofty tax cut as their fuel tax decreases to zero. But this risky scheme could have severe consequences.
Many small businesses that utilize small airplanes will not be able to afford to fly their aircraft, causing many citizens to lose essential services and communities to lose businesses — the very businesses that help them thrive. Losing small aircraft in the sky could slow air traffic to small airports to the point that these airports may not be able to function. This would take away a critical access point for residents who, whether they know it or not, rely heavily on these small airplanes to get the services and supplies they need to survive. Small businesses that specialize and rely on providing services to rural citizens will face severe setbacks to the point that their businesses may no longer be able to compete.
Another huge impact from the loss of these airports will be the rescue operations and the ability to respond to disasters. Planes and helicopters that drop fire retardant from the air use the small community airports to get more supplies and fuel. Rescue pilots utilize the airports to transport personnel and drop off evacuees before returning to save more lives. Without these airports, the planes flying to and from the fires would be forced to take more time between trips and spend less time fighting the blaze. The consequences of the lack of small airports means that the response time of the firefighters would be severely limited, causing untold damage to our forests, communities and, most importantly, our citizens.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has the right idea, though. Soon after the Senate Commerce Committee delivered S1300, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, under the leadership of Reps. James Oberstar and Jerry Costello, introduced a bill that has the full support of the general aviation community. This bill would retain the current fuel tax system while adjusting for inflation, and it provides historic funding for a modern and upgraded air traffic control system that secures general aviation’s place in Utah’s skies. General aviation pilots and airport operators, along with small businesses across America, now look to the members of the Senate Finance Committee as they draft their own proposal. We know that our own Sen. Orrin Hatch, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, will have a voice in the debate, and we strongly urge him to do the right thing and follow the lead of the House committee. By securing general aviation’s future, we make sure we have pilots ready to take to the skies and do what they can to save homes, communities and the lives of Utahns and our neighbors.
Steve Thompson is the executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation and a member of the Logan City Council.
(c) 2007 Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.
Source: DESERET MORNING NEWS