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Tue, Apr 01, 2008

AOPA Settles With FAA On User Fees

NextGen Becomes Public/Private Partnership

ANN APRIL 1st "SPECIAL" EDITION: Aero-News has learned that intense negotiations between officials of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have resulted in an end to the long impasse over user fees on general aviation.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who's been involved in the talks, said the negotiations reached a turning point when AOPA proposed splitting the air traffic control system at 18,000 feet MSL, with the flight levels and airline hub airports to be administered by the FAA, and the lower altitudes and smaller airports regulated by AOPA. The compromise means most airline traffic will operate under FAA control, and most small GA aircraft will fly within the AOPA system.

AOPA President Phil Boyer said modern technology makes the split system possible. “Today's technology makes phone calls between different phone company systems transparent, and handles the appropriate billing without issues,” said Boyer. “There's no reason why we can't build an interface which does the same for ATC. We envision data from the FAA system showing up on our system's control screens, and vice versa, in seamless fashion.

“This will allow the FAA to concentrate on managing the airlines, where its relationships lie, while preserving a cost-effective system for general aviation,” said Boyer. “It's a true win-win, and promises to put an end to the bickering we see at the conclusion of every FAA funding cycle.”

Under the proposal, the FAA portion of the system will be funded by revenues sourced from the US treasury general fund, per-ticket fees on airline passengers, taxes on jet fuel, landing fees at the hub airports, and steep new fines for airlines which allow toilets to overflow during tarmac strandings. The current unionized controller workforce will be retained, and equipping airliners for the FAA's NextGen will cost an estimated $42,000 per aircraft.

AOPA will pay for its low-altitude system by increasing its annual dues to $65, and making ATC services available free to AOPA members. Pilots flying in the low-altitude system without AOPA membership will be charged user fees through an automated billing system driven by ADS-B technology, augmented by ramp checks by the Florida Department of Revenue. AOPA says its system will be largely automated, using avionics under development by Casio, and costing about $70 per aircraft, or $1,400 in applications requiring TSO.

Reaction from within the industry has been mixed. James May, President of the Air Transport Association, called the plan a good start, but stressed his continued opposition to airline passenger ticket fees, landing fees, and jet fuel taxes. “We'll compromise to get things moving, but the airlines will continue to vigorously oppose anything that unfairly pushes the uncontrollable costs of mismanagement onto our own passengers and stockholders.”

Robert Poole, Director of Transportation Studies for The Reason Foundation, said he hopes the compromise will demonstrate to general aviation pilots that user fees are every pilot's friend. “We've always said general aviation needed a seat at the table when decisions concerning the national airspace system are made,” he said. “This plan will be a little like a crowded Thanksgiving dinner, where GA pilots have a seat at the table, but it's at the kids' table. At least they'll have control over whether they have to eat pork.”

“But most of all," said Poole, "this development will free up time for our staff to develop better metaphors.”

Boyer says the plan provides AOPA with a chance to further expand membership. “We know there are between 431 and 477 pilots in the US who are not yet AOPA members,” he revealed. “We'd about run out of ways to draw them in. We're confident they'll choose to pay a flat $65 per year, rather than pay much more in user fees when they fly.”

To ensure a smooth transition and seamless interface between the two systems, Lockheed Martin has been hired to handle the computer networking.

AOPA says it's portion of the system is expected to be up and functional in time for a debut coincident with the July 2008 edition of AOPA Pilot, and in time to allow explaining the details to pilots at Boyer's town hall meeting at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell said the high-altitude portion of the system will be phased in gradually, with complete functionality targeted for late 2062, anticipating delays in the US Senate, and allowing the agency time to thoroughly evaluate the performance of a similar system under development in Europe.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.aopa.org, www.reason.com

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