Aviation System Modernization: Let’s Get the Facts Straight
February 26, 2015
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  • In a recent opinion piece published by The Hill (Corporate welfare at 30,000 feet), the author tried using a sensationalist appeal, and largely unfounded claims, to disparage those who rely on small, “general aviation” aircraft, as Congress takes up an important debate over FAA reauthorization and the future of the nation’s aviation system.

    The author’s trumped-up take – which targeted general aviation aircraft users as recipients of special government treatment – was often uninformed, and even misleading, on some basic information.

    Let’s get the facts on the table. As with other countries, our nation’s air transportation system is largely built to meet the intense requirements of our commercial airlines. In fact, an authority no less than the International Civil Aviation Organization has clearly stated that “the major part of the air navigation facilities and services infrastructure has been established to serve the requirements of commercial air traffic.”

    And while this commercial aviation infrastructure requires a heavy financial investment, it’s not what most general aviation aircraft need or use. Instead those aircraft typically avoid operating in the airlines’ hub-and-spoke system, and therefore account for just a single-digit percentage of traffic at hub airports.

    This simple reality has been repeatedly recognized by leaders at government agencies, members of Congress and respected industry analysts, who are well aware that if general aviation were grounded entirely tomorrow, the cost of operating the nation’s air traffic system would not appreciably decrease.

    We can look to real-world examples to illustrate this fact: after all, for years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington’s National Airport was closed to general aviation. Did operating costs decrease at that airport? Of course not, because what’s needed to handle several dozen airliners – each carrying 300 passengers during peak hours into National Airport – in no way resembles what’s needed to handle a twin-prop’s flight taking four passengers from Altoona, Pa. to Shreveport, La.

    Unfortunately, the discredited idea that all airplanes impose the same cost on the system has long been advanced to push a hefty new tax burden on the citizens, companies and communities that rely on general aviation – and that’s why the Feb. 24 oped leaned heavily on a 2007 study that put forward precisely this flawed premise.

    Interestingly, the oped’s author failed to tell The Hill’s readership that when that study was released, serious questions were raised about the validity of its underlying assumptions, the methodology that was employed (it departed from traditional accounting practices), and the fact that the study’s supporting data was never made public.

    In truth, the study, and the oped reflecting its claims, appear to be at odds with a long-standing, data-driven consensus – based on mainstream cost-allocation methodologies – that general aviation drives about eight-to-11 percent of the system’s costs, and appropriately pays about that amount. The payment method used, called the fuel tax, employs a common-sense approach, with users paying the tax right at the pump, on a per-gallon basis, before a flight takes place.

    This mechanism is an unmatched proxy for system use, because the more often you fly, the longer distances you fly, the larger your aircraft and the more fuel you burn, the more taxes you pay. It’s also highly efficient: paying at the pump means full compliance, without a collection bureaucracy – a “SKY-R-S” – needed to administer foreign-style fees or charges. In short, anything that could be done through other mechanisms, like those proposed by the op-ed’s author, the fuel tax can do better.

    Here’s a final fact: The entrepreneurs, companies and others using general aviation aircraft generate more than a million jobs in the U.S., and over $200 billion in economic output – they have every reason to be as committed as ever to modernizing the aviation system, and further bolstering the safety, efficiency, capacity and diversity that make it the world’s leader.

    We need to reauthorize the FAA and move forward on modernization using data and facts – those with other, lesser appeals are doing a disservice to those seriously engaged in this policy debate.

    Bolen is president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association.