Toll Booth in the Sky—Who Pays?
September 10, 2012
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  • By Jack Olcott

    Be prepared: The topic of user fees for business jets will surface as politicians seek ways to increase government revenues. So far, the associations representing Business Aviation have done a good job keeping this perennial issue under control. But we can anticipate that the battle will reemerge once this fall’s election is decided, regardless of which party wins.

    Considering how critical transportation is to economic development, the focus of the Administration and Congress should be on improving the efficiency of our nation’s air traffic control system, not on attempts to impose higher costs on users of business jets. Politicians need to look beyond their misunderstandings to see that the use of business aircraft within the air traffic control (ATC) system adds more value to our nation’s air transportation infrastructure than it consumes. User fees beyond what the community currently pays in fuel tax are not justified and could be counterproductive.

    Our nation’s ATC system exists to serve the airlines. Ground every business jet and infrastructure costs would not change fundamentally. No control centers would close, no satellite would be decommissioned. Congestion would not be reduced—most business jets operate to airports the airlines don’t use. Carbon generation from business jets is minimal compared with other forms of transportation. Perhaps the FAA bureaucracy would be reduced somewhat in size, but I doubt the cost savings would be substantial.

    While politicians are not suggesting such a draconian scenario, consider the consequences of grounding business jets and other General Aviation aircraft. Obviously, our nation’s economy would be substantially damaged since many communities depend on Business and General Aviation for efficient access to air transportation. The scheduled airlines serve less than 10 percent of U.S. airports accessible to the public, and 95 percent of all scheduled flights serve about three percent of the nation’s public-use airports. (See articles that I wrote about this called A Needed Resource and The Changing Character of Scheduled Air Service in the June issue of World Aircraft Sales magazine.)

    As a marginal user of an existing infrastructure, Business Aviation enables the ATC system to be more productive and more valuable to our nation.

    It should be noted, however, that increasing the cost of Business and General Aviation (such as charging higher user fees) would reduce activity levels in this form of air transportation. When the user fee issue surfaced during my tenure as president of the National Business Aviation Association—which it did three times between 1992 and 2003—research conducted by the Business Aviation community concluded that a special fee of about $100 per instrument flight plan would cut activity levels for smaller aircraft by about 50 percent and reduce even the usage by larger business jets such as Gulfstreams. Anecdotally, consider how much typical General Aviation flying activity has fallen as fuel prices have risen. Increased costs result in decreased activity.

    The Business and General Aviation community has successfully opposed increased user fees in the past, and with the support of voters knowledgeable about the benefits of this aspect of air transportation, it will do so in the future. Take nothing for granted. Know the facts, such as those the NBAA publishes on its web site: Be willing to communicate with your elected representatives, and tell others why Business Aviation is good for business.