Phil Boyer, President of The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, has never been one to mince words, and his press conference with Washington DC reporters regarding the ongoing debate over FAA and airline-proposed user fees was no exception. Boyer met with reporters at the National Press Club ahead of President Bush’s fiscal year 2008 budget submission to Congress scheduled for next week. Briefing reporters on what AOPA sees as the key items in the upcoming budget submission, Boyer (right) said the FAA is seeking a radical new user-fee based funding system, and dramatic tax increases for aviation users. Boyer said, “The administration is manufacturing an FAA ‘funding crisis’ in a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to divert attention away from the real issue — the need to address the problems that constrain capacity, efficiency, and new technology adoption.
“They are attempting an end-run around Congress to put the world’s safest, most efficient, and largest air traffic control system into the hands of airline barons who’ve flown their own businesses into bankruptcy.”
Boyer warned the proposed funding changes could significantly decrease congressional authority for FAA spending and oversight, and reduce or eliminate taxpayer support for and control of the FAA’s critical public safety functions.
AOPA sees congressional oversight of the FAA as critical. Former DOT inspector general Ken Mead joined Boyer at the podium to add, “You need the checks and balances of the US Congress.”
He recalled that Congress had shut down the microwave landing system and the previous attempt at modernization — the advanced automation system (AAS) — when it had spun out of control and gone well over budget.
“I had to testify more times than I can recall on AAS,” said Mead, “and it is a fact that it was stopped in its tracks by the checks and balances of Congress.”
Mead’s analysis of future FAA revenue based on projections in the administration’s budget for 2006 shows the agency could double its current spending on modernization — up to $20 billion over the next five years — while still enjoying a surplus, assuming a continuing contribution from the general fund.
The FAA has said a loss of revenues due to lower fares has led to a reduction in the aviation trust fund.
But Boyer says administration claims of slumping revenue and a dwindling trust fund are just bogus justifications for a user fee system.
According to AOPA, the major portion of the FAA’s budget traditionally has been paid for from the aviation trust fund, which gets its revenue from federal excise taxes on aviation fuel (much like highway gas taxes), and taxes on airline tickets and air cargo bills. About 25 percent of the agency’s budget has been funded from the general fund because of benefits to the general public from a safe, regulated air transportation system.
“This system has worked well for nearly four decades and will continue to meet what the FAA says it will need for future modernization,” said Boyer. Boyer said that if the current funding system were continued, the surplus in the aviation trust fund will exceed $7 billion by 2012, while providing some $20 billion over the next five years for FAA capital expenses including air traffic control modernization, plus the historical contribution to airport infrastructure of $3.7 billion per year.
But the FAA doesn’t yet know what modernization will look like or what it will cost.
“We strongly support modernizing the air transportation system to reduce costs and improve efficiency, but the FAA doesn’t have a final system design. They just think that whatever it is they pick, it will cost as much as $20 billion,” said Boyer. “No matter what they do to improve capacity and efficiency in the sky, it won’t fix a system in which the airlines schedule 50 aircraft onto a runway that can only handle 30.”
And it is airline control of a future air traffic control and funding system that particularly upsets the nation’s private pilots and aircraft owners says Boyer. Various user fee proposals circulated through government grapevines envision an airline-dominated board removing spending decisions from Congress. The airlines would have a strong hand in determining what they charge themselves and other minority system users.
“There is nothing inherent in the user fee proposals that addresses the issues of future airspace capacity, new technology, increased efficiency, and more runway capacity,” said Boyer, “so you have to wonder; what’s in it for the airlines?
“Wherever in the world user fee systems have been implemented, they’ve proven to be expensive, complicated, financially unstable, and harmful to the average citizen flying an aircraft for business or personal transportation.”
Boyer said that taxes are the most efficient and cost-effective way to fund the FAA. Citing Treasury Department data, he noted that collection costs amounted to a mere 0.001 percent of the total raised for the aviation trust fund.
“A complicated user fee system, with the legions of clerks, accountants, and managers needed to send out, process, and collect bills, could not be nearly as cost effective,” said Boyer.
“Our aviation transportation system should be treated like all other public benefit government functions when it comes to financing,” said Boyer. “Whether it be airways, highways, or public education, funding should come from generally applied taxes, calibrated to the ability to pay.”
AOPA has launched a dedicated website to monitor the user fee issue, and report on general aviation’s progress against the forces pushing for such fees against GA pilots. That website is available here.
The more-than-410,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has represented the interests of general aviation pilots since 1939. General aviation includes all flying except the scheduled airlines and the military. Two-thirds of all US pilots, and three-quarters of the GA pilots, are AOPA members.