WASHINGTON, 11 April 2013. President Obama’s budget proposal includes a $100-per-flight user fee—a charge that AOPA warns could be disastrous for general aviation (GA).
“We are disappointed to see this misguided idea resurfacing after it has been repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected in the past. This is the wrong way to fund our aviation system,” says AOPA President Craig Fuller. “Congress has said it will not tolerate user fees, and neither will the general aviation community.”
Two previous budgets from the Obama administration have included similar user fee proposals, but in each case Congress has rejected the idea. And opposition to user fees on Capitol Hill is growing. Last week, 223 bipartisan members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to the president, urging him to “abandon this idea once and for all.”
User fees appear to be just the latest salvo in a series of attacks on GA. The community is also contending with an FAA plan to close 149 contract air traffic control towers, selected primarily because they serve GA. Other challenges include attempts to change the way taxes are calculated for business aircraft, long wait times for customs at GA airports, and anticipated cuts to medical and certification services.
“Taken together, these proposals represent a serious assault on general aviation, an industry that creates jobs, grows businesses, provides critical services, and donates tens of thousands of flight hours to charitable causes,” Fuller adds. “Either the Administration doesn’t recognize the consequences of their actions, or they just don’t care.”
AOPA and others have stridently opposed user fees, preferring to continue funding the aviation system through excise taxes on fuel.
“Imposing user fees is expensive, cumbersome, and inefficient,” Fuller says. “Pay-at-the-pump has worked since the dawn of powered flight, and it still makes sense today.”
While fuel taxes are collected at the point of sale, a user-fee system would require the creation of a new bureaucracy to administer the charges; and, while tax increases must be approved by Congress, no such congressional oversight would be required to raise or extend fees once they are in place.
The fee proposed in the president’s 2014 budget comes not only with new administration and collection costs; it also comes with a special commission whose sole function would be to recommend a “replacement charge or charges that would raise no less in revenue” than the $100 fee, says an AOPA representative.
“The language of this proposal is designed specifically to open the door for new, higher fees in the future,” Fuller explains. “With no Congressional oversight and no safeguards in place, this proposal would give the Obama Administration a blank check to spend pilots’ money.”
The White House estimates that the proposed user fee would generate $7.3 billion over 10 years, but the actual cost to operators could be much higher while the proceeds could be far lower, says a representative. In addition to the fees themselves, users can expect to incur costs to meet accounting and documentation requirements, and the anticipated decline in GA activity as a result of fees could dramatically reduce the amount of revenue generated.
Although recreational flights and some types of aircraft would be exempt, it is unclear exactly how the government would determine whether a specific flight meets the criteria for the fee. It’s also unclear whether a flight would be considered the time from takeoff to landing or calculated some other way, leaving open the possibility that operators would have to pay the fee every time they stop for fuel.
Of greater concern is the possibility that aircraft operators would reduce their flying, stretch fuel supplies to minimize the number of stops, or simply avoid using air traffic control services.
“User fees would compromise safety and do irreparable harm to an industry that supports millions of jobs and contributes $150 billion to the U.S. economy each year,” Fuller warns. “At a time when the economy continues to struggle it just doesn’t make sense to undermine an industry that is making a positive contribution.”