By Russ Niles, Editor-in-Chief
The Senate will likely vote on Monday or Tuesday on an FAA Reauthorization bill that does not contain user fees for general aviation. The breakthrough came late Friday with an agreement between Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, which supported user fees, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the finance committee, which opposed them. Under the deal, the tax on jet fuel for general aviation will rise 65 percent to 36 cents a gallon from the current 21.8 cents, increasing the contribution toward the FAA budget by corporate aviation by 2 percent to 5 percent. “This agreement is a good down payment toward ending the growing inequities that exist between airline passengers and corporate jet users,” Rockefeller said in the statement. But in a podcast interview with AVweb, Eric Byer of the National Air Transportation Association said the deal had more to do with political expediency than any softening of Rockefeller’s stance on user fees.
Byer said the user fee issue has been eclipsed politically by escalating controversies involving the FAA’s oversight of airline maintenance and ongoing issues with its air traffic controllers and allegations that control facilities are dangerously understaffed. Byer said the high profile of those issues in the mainstream media made the agency’s funding structure an expendable distraction. But Byer also said he expects the user fee issue to come back and said aviation groups will have to remain vigilant to prevent that. “If we let our guard down we could be caught with our pants down,” he said. The House passed its version of the reauthorization last fall and, assuming the Senate passes the current version of its bill, the two will be very close and reconciliation should be straightforward. President Bush had threatened to veto a combined bill that doesn’t contain user fees but the change in the political climate concerning the FAA could change that stance.