Thursday, October 29, 2009

User Fees vs FAA Services

I am deeply concerned by reports of new or increased user fees for general aviation. These include the possibility of fees for general aviation aircraft using Air Traffic Control (ATC) and Flight Service Station (FSS) services and for landing at the larger hub airports; increased fees to issue pilot, medical and aircraft registration certificates; and a huge increase in the aviation gasoline taxes.

My concern is that each of these fees will severely affect flight safety. If new fees are imposed, pilots and operators will bend to simple economics and take unsafe shortcuts to minimize or eliminate the financial impact of these fees. Those shortcuts will include using fuel that is not approved for aviation use; flying in instrument conditions without the benefit of contacting ATC; flying without filing a flight plan with an FSS; flying high-performance into and out of airports with short runways, minimal or no navigation aids, and no fire/crash service, and not obtaining adequate weather and NOTAM briefings.

Since general aviation pilots and operators will avoid paying fees by avoiding FAA services, the risk of weather-related accidents will increase. The rate of mid-air collisions because of the presence of unidentified aircraft will mushroom. Because General Aviation operators will avoid using the ATC services, I predict that mid-air collisions will even occur at jet cruising altitudes and in the busiest airport areas, such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles where radar contact and ATC control are mandatory.

I was an active-duty Air Force pilot when President Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers when they went on strike in 1981. As a result of the strike, the capacity of the ATC system was severely impacted. Until capacity was restored, ATC services were provided based on the priority of the flight. Many flights were denied ATC clearances and handling because they were given low priority. I recall that many of those flights often took off anyway, flying into controlled airspace without an ATC clearance. This clearly was a serious safety problem that persisted until full ATC capacity was restored. I predict that exactly the same thing will happen if Congress agrees to impose user fees on aviation.

The airline industry is leading the fight for user fees for services provided by the FAA such as air traffic control. The Air Transport Association, made up primarily of airlines, supports "a new 'cost-based' mechanism for generating revenues necessary to maintain, operate and enhance the national airspace system."

Europe funds its aviation services through the imposition of user fees. (Why must we copy the worst features of Europe?) Consequently, general aviation as we know it is almost nonexistent in Europe. Their fees have driven up the cost of flight training to the point that private flying now is the domain only of the very wealthy. Those who are not wealthy must come to the United States to learn to fly. If we copy Europe's user fee scheme in any way, the cost of learning to fly will skyrocket here as well. If Congress approves the FAA's user fee plan, where will our nation's airlines get future replacement airline pilots -- outsource to India?

Many owners of small aircraft are members of Angel Flight. As Angel Flight pilots, they donate their time and pay all their own aircraft and fuel expenses to transport people who need medical care, but who can't afford the cost of transportation. If Congress imposes user fees, I predict that Angel Flight and other charitable uses of small aircraft will be history.

Aviation services users already are paying fees -- through taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel, as examples -- to cover the government's costs. The airlines, however, merely serve as collection agents for the government, eventually passing on the ticket taxes they collect from passengers and paying next to nothing to use a government system in conducting their business.
Meanwhile, general aviation (virtually all flying that is not military, other government, or airline), according to a 1997 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, is responsible for about 6% of FAA's ATC costs while paying -- conveniently -- about 6% of those costs through existing taxes. The sought change in the way the FAA is funded would severely impact General Aviation.

As an airline Captain (Boeing 747) I vigorously oppose any change in the manner of funding of the FAA and its services to pilots. My personal safety, and that of the people who ride in my airplane, depends on retaining the current means of funding the FAA and its services.

Congress must reject any form of user fees in US aviation. The current funding process has given us the safest airspace in the world. Don't try to fix that which isn't broken. Congress must ensure that no legislation is passed which includes or authorizes new or increased fees on general aviation. Likewise, the Whitehouse must immediately warn the FAA and the DOT that new or increased or new fees will not be tolerated.

No comments:

Post a Comment