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Fri, Jul 13, 2007

Sens. Rockefeller, Lott Say GA Will Pay If S.1300 Fails

"There Are Ways To Do That, And We Will Find Those Ways"

Two US Senators openly threatened the general aviation community Thursday, stating if GA pilots refuse to accept a blanket user fee for pilots of turbine aircraft filing an IFR flight plan... there will be consequences.

"Commercial airline passengers shouldn't continue to subsidize corporate jets," said aviation subcommittee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (right)during Thursday's Senate Finance Committee hearing. "If we don't restore equity, then as chairman of this aviation subcommittee, I will address the equity issue by looking for ways to limit general aviation access to congested airspace."

"There are ways to do that, and we will find those ways," the West Virginia democrat added ominously.

Mississppi Senator Trent Lott joined his colleague across the aisle in threatening general aviation, if the Senate's FAA funding bill (S.1300) is changed or disapproved.

"We're going to have a fair bill or no bill, and I'm prepared to go to the mat," the Republican said.

As ANN reported, the two senators introduced the Senate's proposed funding plan for FAA reauthorization in May. The plan would phase out a 4.3 cent per gallon tax airlines pay for fuel, and introduces a new per-trip fee for turbine general aviation pilots who fly under IFR flight plans, with limited exceptions for medical flights and other emergency operations.

Rockefeller and Lott say their plan restores 'fairness' to funding the FAA. But that can be in the eyes of the beholder, notes the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association -- and several other senators maintain airlines already receive sizable breaks.

"We've had preferential tax treatment for the airlines, particularly in pensions," notes Kansas Senator Pat Roberts.

And, Roberts notes, there are also more equitable ways to insure all users of the nation's air traffic control system pay their fair share. "The general aviation community is not unreceptive to an increase in the gas tax," said Roberts. "They're for modernization as well."

Rockefeller sneers at those opposed to the $25 IFR fee, saying it "isn't exactly a backbreaker," and that "90 percent of general aviation aircraft are excluded" from paying.

"It's not the fee, it is the structure," Senator Roberts replies. "All of general aviation is opposed to the fee, even the 90 percent that are exempt."

Plus, Roberts adds, "I don't think that giving the airlines a tax break is the best way to start modernization."

Eliminating the fuel tax for airlines also struck New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman a bit oddly. Given all the FAA is hoping to accomplish with its proposed Next Generation Air Traffic Control System, "why would you eliminate the fuel tax on the airlines?" he asked.

Bingaman also pointed out the ATC user fee would likely discourage flights to smaller communities. Witness Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office agreed, noting that regional air carrier profits are so slim that "the $25 fee could put them over the edge."

Dillingham restated his contention from previous hearings, saying that the current excise tax-based funding system "could support all FAA activities, including NextGen." He added forecasted revenues to the aviation trust fund could support increased FAA spending.

Peter R. Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said that with a forecast 7 percent annual growth in aviation tax revenues, the trust fund would bring in some $158 billion over the next 10 years, versus an inflation-adjusted FAA budget baseline of $135 billion.

Even FAA Administrator Marion Blakey -- one of the most vocal advocates for user fees, alongside Air Transport Association president James May -- came close to admitting the FAA takes in enough money already, reports the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

"We [the FAA] don't feel starved for funds," Blakey responded, to a question posed by New York Senator Charles Schumer during Thursday's hearing.

"I can't begin to tell you how strongly Sen. Rockefeller feels about the $25 ATC modernization surcharge or user fee," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And we have tried to explain to him how dead set we are against any user fee on any segment of aviation, regardless of the amount.

"But general aviation is willing to contribute more toward system modernization through the fuel. That's why we have endorsed H.R.2881, the House FAA funding bill. We would ask the Senate to give fair consideration to the taxing and funding concepts in that bill."

The funding authority for the FAA and the government's ability to collect aviation taxes will expire at the end of September. If an FAA funding bill (called a "reauthorization bill") is not approved before then, the FAA could be forced to stop operations.

FMI: www.senate.gov, www.aopa.org, www.faa.gov

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