Aviation User Fees: It’s About More than Money

By Robert Mark on March 1st, 2007

With less than a year to go before long-running Aviation Trust Fund legislation expires, FAA administrator Marion Blakey has been developing some serious rhetoric about the need to fix a funding system no one else except the airlines seems to think is broken.

The White House believes that billions of fresh tax dollars are the only solution to an air traffic control system currently stretched as operationally taunt as a bow string. 

Not surprisingly, aviation alphabet groups, except for the Air Transport Association of course, have accurately identified holes in many of the specifics of the funding plan Blakey unveiled a few weeks back, as well as questioned the somewhat fishy timing that seems to line up with the airline’s serious need to stop the flow of their own red ink.

There is little doubt that AOPA, NBAA, HAI and GAMA are asking the right questions, like prove to us there is really a funding problem,  or why develop another bureaucracy to handle the fuel tax cash when the most recent boondoggle, the TSA, has become a poster child for confused new government agencies.

I’d say this proves industry problems won’t all be solved with money.

Twenty years ago, I wrote an article for The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine about the air traffic control system, then just a few years past the devastating PATCO strike of 1981.

During an interview with administrator J. Lynn Helms, I asked how the agency planned to continue rebuilding an air traffic system many thought would never recover (many claim today it never did). 

Helms thought new technologies would prevent the kinds of labor woes that led to the August, 1981 strike by replacing people with computers that would never ask for work breaks or new contracts.

Even in 1986 though, the plan was proving to be more challenging than anyone expected. Updates in the mid-1980’s called for many more years and billions more dollars than expected.

FAA says the airlines have been unfairly burdened with the costs of an ATC system they demanded in the first place. But the FAA has yet to explain exactly how much it costs to run the ATC system. But they claim it will certainly take lots more cash and time to fix the problem.

The problem is the agency told us the same thing 20 years ago.

Time’s up. 

We’ve spent too much time and money hoping – and praying – the FAA can get the job done.

With a credibility record like FAA’s on matters of system architecture, finance and employee relations, the burden of proof should lie with the agency to prove that the problems actually exist as well as how their seriously flawed, almost undefendable plans will have any affect.

This argument isn’t about industry credibility. It’s about FAA’s because no one believes the agency has a prayer of building a workable solution to the air traffic mess we’re headed for, no matter how much money or time we give them.

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2 Responses to “Aviation User Fees: It’s About More than Money”

  1. Dave Koch Says:


    I wish someone would focus on the fact that the airlines pay NOTHING to the government for ATC services. They only pass along the taxes they collect from passengers.

    I believe ATA’s initiative is really aimed at accomplishing 2 strategic goals:

    1. The airlines gaining control of the ATC system so that services can be biased in their favor.

    2. The imposition of increased costs on non-airline commercial aviation as a means for stifling competition.

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