By Dave Dreeszen
Since becoming a private pilot in 1974, Greg Finzen has seen the cost of flying steadily increase.
Aircraft fuel, for instance, now hovers around $5 a gallon, nearly double what it cost just a few years back, the Sioux City man said. The price at the airport pump could jump even more if the Federal Aviation Administration and some members of Congress get their way.
Earlier this year, the FAA, as part of a multibillion-dollar plan to modernize the nation’s air traffic system, proposed a 366 percent increase in the federal tax on fuel for general aviation aircraft. General aviation includes personal and business planes but excludes commercial and military aircraft.
That specific FAA plan has little support in Congress. An alternative proposal that has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee contains a smaller fuel tax hike but exempts smaller planes from the increase.
The same bill, for the first time, also calls for a $25 per-flight user fee on all turbine-powered aircraft using air traffic services at major U.S. airports. In other words, a small plane with three aboard would pay the same fee as a 300-passenger jumbo jet landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Area aviation officials warn the fee and tax increases, if adopted, would have a chilling effect on generation avaiation at Sioux Gateway Airport as well as smaller airports around the tri-state region.
“It will be very difficult if those costs go up,’ Finzen said. “It could trickle down to the average consumer. It could mean less jobs in the community.”
Finzen, who is also a flight instructor, noted higher fees and taxes could hit hard locally because a growing number of companies maintain corporate planes at Sioux Gateway Airport/Col. Bud Day Field.
“For a town our size, we probably have a larger share of business aircraft than some other towns because we are not served well by the airlines,’ he said.
Steve Mayo, vice president/general manager at Jetsun Aviation, the fixed-based operator at Sioux Gateway Airport, said business travelers likely would have little choice but to absorb the added fees or taxes, if enacted. But it could ground some private pilots who fly for pleasure or personal travel.
“Every time costs go up, they just fly less,’ Mayo said.
A slowdown could be devastating for smaller airports, which rely entirely on general aviation traffic, said Tom McClinton, a member of the Storm Lake Airport Commission for 20 years. Storm Lake is one of 25 Northwest Iowa cities that operate airports.
McClinton, also a pilot since 1983, flies about 100 hours a year, including short trips to Sioux City, family visits in the Denver area and flying to warm-weather destinations such as the Texas Gulf Coast. He said user fees could prompt out-of-town pilots like him to bypass Sioux Gateway Airport and land instead at the smaller Martin Field, just across the Nebraska border in South Sioux City. That’s because the FAA fee would not be imposed at smaller airports not supported by air traffic control.
Even if they didn’t fly through controlled air space, McClinton noted, private pilots would be subject to a user fee if they request an FAA service, such as getting a weather report.
Finzen and McClinton both worry the user fees, if adopted, ultimately could hurt aviation safety.
“If a pilot feels already strapped for money, they might be less inclined to use those safety services,’ McClinton said.
Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize the nation’s aviation system and the funding stream that supports it.
The FAA-backed legislation called for eliminating the 4.3 cents per gallon fuel tax that airlines currently pay and raising the fuel tax on general aviation from 21 cents to 70 cents a gallon.
Opponents argue the tax break, estimated at $500 million annually, would be unfairly balanced on the backs of general aviation.
“The only one that would benefit, as I see it, are the folks who are pushing it — the airline industry,’ Finzen said.
In a statement issued two months ago, the FAA said general aviation criticism of its modernization plan is based on a series of “myths.’ The agency said the proposal creates more equity in the system by ‘reducing the tax burden for airlines and the passengers who fly with them.’
The FAA would raise more revenue from general avaiation, which the agency said drives 16 percent of air traffic costs but contributes just 3 percent of taxes flowing into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.
“The bottom line is that under the current system, the family of four taking a budget vacation is subsidizing the CEOs flying on a corporate jet,’ the FAA said in a statement. “This is less a tax break for the airlines than the elimination of a subsidy to general aviation.’
The Senate Commerce Commitee-passed bill contains a smaller fuel tax for general aviation, from 21 cents to 49 cents a gallon. Owners and pilots of smaller aircraft, such as those powered by pistons, could file for a refund of the tax increase.
Even pilots and aircraft owners who would be exempted from the increased fees and taxes fear the bureauracy, hidden costs and future uncertainity that such a new system would create.
“It’s such huge changes,’ said Mara Lee, a spokesperson for Alliance for Aviation Across America, a coalition of more than 3,000 groups and individuals fighting the proposed user fees and tax increases. “It’s an entirely new system that would affect everyone.’
The alliance also believes the proposed funding system would not generate sufficient revenues to support the reauthorization of the air traffic system.
The Senate Commerce Committee-passed bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction on how to pay for the air traffic programs. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, predicts changes will be made. Grassley said the FAA reauthorization contains a “great deal of good’ for Iowa, but he has serious concerns about the proposed user fees and tax increases.
“As we make decisions in the coming months on how to finance the bill, I’ll be working to balance the usage of the system and to ensure that the many smaller airports are not faced with an undue burden,’ the senator said in a statement.
The Finance Committee is expected to begin hearings on the bill in July. A House committee also is working on its own version of the FAA legislation. Some senior House members have vowed to strip out the user fees.
“The next few weeks is when it’s really going to take a turn one way or another, either on the side of the airlines or the side of pilots or somewhere in between,’ Lee said.
Journal business editor Dave Dreeszen can be reached at (712) 293-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: SIOUX CITY JOURNAL