As the second session of the 114th Congress begins, House lawmakers are slated to consider a sweeping Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would fundamentally change the way our nation’s air traffic control system is operated.
America’s airspace is the safest in the world, but it is far from efficient. Costly air traffic-related delays are on the rise and commercial flight times are just as long as they were in the 1970s. Although the FAA has been working to transition our radar-based system to a more efficient satellite-based one, federal regulators are far behind schedule. An update to our air traffic laws is long overdue and necessary in order for these modernization efforts to move forward.
But the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to propose legislation that would contain a really troubling surprise for the general aviation industry: It would establish a non-profit entity to oversee our nation’s air navigation system, funded by a new user fee that would disproportionately hurt general aviation.
General aviation is not how most of the public interacts with airplanes but it’s a crucial nationwide business for many reasons. It includes all civil flights with the major exception of scheduled airlines, the flights Americans typically take to travel across the U.S. or internationally. Examples of general aviation include agricultural aviation, flight training, corporate and business aviation, emergency and patrol services, construction and surveying operations, and tourism and recreational flights.
Nationwide, general aviation is a $219 billion industry that contributes more than 1 percent to our GDP and employs 1.1 million workers who make a living building, developing, operating, and servicing the world’s leading aircraft. In Kansas, general aviation supports over 42,000 jobs and contributes $2.8 billion in labor income and $8.3 billion to the state’s total economic output. These hardworking men and women of Cessna, Learjet, Beechcraft, and machine shops across the state are the heart and soul of an American industry that has supplied nearly 75 percent of all general aviation aircraft since the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.
In Wichita, the district I represent, the “Air Capital of the World,” general aviation is critical to the proper functioning of our airspace and is a key driver of economic growth, innovation, and job creation. Non-commercial general aviation flights serve as a lifeline to thousands of communities where airlines do not fly, while contributing a fraction of total U.S. air traffic congestion.
Unfortunately, recent draft outlines of legislation would unduly burden the general aviation community. Most concerning is a proposal to add to or replace the current fuel tax system with user fees in order to finance a new air traffic regulator that would be run by a board of aviation interest groups. This new user fee system would place an unfair funding burden on general aviation, whose aircraft take up a large share of flights in America but who use significantly less fuel than the major airlines. The existing fuel-based fee is the most fair and accurate way to distinguish between heavy and light users of the system. For instance, an aircraft flying a long distance should contribute a greater share of the funds to regulate air travel than should an airline flying just a short distance. With the fuel tax, that is the case. But under the new proposed system, the two planes would pay the same fees.
In addition, a new user-fee system would require the creation of a costly new federal collection bureaucracy to collect the taxes from hundreds of thousands of individual pilots and aircraft owners. Creating a new layer of bureaucracy through this type of governing board to oversee the air traffic regulator would not only harm American general aviation, it is a violation of our conservative principles. Lawmakers can try to spin this new, non-profit entity as privatization, but the reality of such a proposal is that it will create an entirely additional layer of bureaucracy that will diminish Congressional oversight and give certain favored special interests more power over the nation’s air traffic system.
If Congress wants to reform our nation’s air traffic control system, it must do so without creating new mandatory user fees and additional layers of regulatory bureaucracy. Instead, lawmakers should refocus and maximize FAA resources to speed up current ATC modernization efforts in order to increase system efficiency, while maintaining our high safety standards. When it comes to reforming the way our skies are regulated, we must be certain that as we work to solve specific problems, we do not create others.
Mike Pompeo represents the Fourth District of Kansas, including Wichita, the Air Capital of the World, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to serving in Congress, Pompeo founded Thayer Aerospace, where he served as CEO for more than a decade providing components for commercial and military aircraft. Pompeo serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Select Benghazi Committee. He is a graduate of West Point and is an Army Veteran.