Aviation User Fees … They’re My Fault

By Robert Mark on March 19th, 2007

No one I know disagrees with the need to constantly upgrade the U.S. air traffic control system. We all know system demand is on the rise. We just disagree on who should pay, how much they should pay and whether of course the sky is actually falling the way FAA would like us to believe.

Now that the White House has pushed their camel’s nose under the tent through the funding plan Marion Blakey proposed a few weeks ago, the pace for approval is picking up quickly.

A few issues back, I made it clear I don’t believe FAA is capable of handling that upgrade though.

My rationale was that we can’t possibly trust an agency that hasn’t been able to deliver most of the upgrades it has suggested in the past and certainly not at the costs they estimated. 

So why should we believe FAA can pull it off this time if we just give them large buckets of our tax dollars to play with?

There have been many succinct editorials about user fees such as those from AOPA’s Phil Boyer and NBAA’s Ed Bolen, made especially more heartwarming since there are Republican Senators like Trent Lott running around telling everyone they’ll need to pay more and that we should just be fair to the airlines. The administration’s plans have been short on details and filled with plenty of “trust us, the airlines really do have a case,” kinds of explanations.

Boyer made perfect sense when he said recently, “It’s time to take the ridiculous tax increase and user fees off the table so that we can have a meaningful dialogue on FAA funding.” Obviously the agency would rather avoid that possibility.

But this administration has cried wolf so many times their credibility is shot even with people who supported them initially. From the war in Iraq, to the handling of Katrina victims to the state of the economy, no one believes the government can actually do what it promises. Certainly none of us in the aviation industry even believe the administration’s rationale for the funding change in the first place.

It’s no great surprise either that FAA has taken the airline’s side on user fees. After all, the White House gave the airlines $5 billion in hard cash assistance after 9/11 while business and general aviation choked unnoticed.  

But with all the rhetoric about Aviation User Fees from us, as well as associations pleading with members to contact their elected representatives, I’m worried we might have shot ourselves in the foot precisely because we’ve been talking about it so much.

People seem to easily grow numb these days when they hear the same drumbeat more than just a few times. We live in an era where we assume that paying association dues relieves us of the responsibility for the fight so we can go back to our regular jobs.

And isn’t that what the White House told us to do after 9/11 … put on the best face possible and just get back to normal?

Even though AOPA has 410,000 members, many of whom will write letters and make phone calls and some of NBAA’s more than 7,000 member companies will try to make a few waves, I don’t think it will be enough. Unfortunately for us too, another industry group, NATCA, has been relatively quiet on the user fee issue since they have their own fight with FAA at present.

Another problem is that although we think of this industry as home, aviation is not much more than a fly on the wall to the other 300 million people who live in the U.S. The FAA, in fact, is counting on this lack of support from the public too.

The agency has never been able to pin down their cost of services, nor have they proven that the current system is unworkable, nor have they explained how in the world they’d operate a system to collect the user fees they’re expecting.

But they have one thing going for them. There’s a bill on the table. And we all know what happens when the President decides he wants something his way. He usually gets it.

The administration is hoping we won’t notice the slight of hand this time either because we’ve often missed it in the past. If they can get us arguing about what a compromise bill might look like, they’ll have won, because it would mean we must accept that the bill should even exist.

That would be a serious mistake. 

This argument shouldn’t be about how we collect user fees to fund the future ATC system.

We should be demanding that legislators refuse to debate such inane legislation until FAA has proven its case. And the guilt about the looming fee evaporation in September is a red herring that exists precisely because the agency hasn’t proven its case.

So, I have to get back to my word processor and type out some more letters to my legislators and get them to focus on axing this bill. I’m also telling them to demand data from the agency that proves the system’s true needs and costs before we listen to any more talk about the sky falling.

But I wanted you all to know I’m sorry I am that it has gotten to this point. I’m writing as fast as one guy can.

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2 Responses to “Aviation User Fees … They’re My Fault”

  1. Aviation Views Says:

    I agree that the FAA will do a poor job of trying to implement any change and will squander the dollars that will be dedicated to this issue. Several years ago the FAA endeavored to re-invent itself, failed miserably and burned up a big chunk of dollars in the process. Lots of trendy words like streamlining and vertical integration were used…blah blah blah…it remains one of the most bureaucratic beasts associated with the federal government. If memory serves they have already failed once at ATC reform. We can scarcely afford another failure nor can the current ATC model remain unchanged and continue to support ever increasing demands..

  2. Jetwhine » Blog Archive » ATC User Fees; It’s Crunch Time with FAA Says:

    […] will run dry at the end of September and bring updates to the ATC system to a grinding halt. Unfortunately, no one, at least not anyone outside the airline industry believes FAA has made its ca… Nor does anyone believe FAA is the organization to fix ATC’s systematic […]

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