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Wed, Apr 11, 2007

More Opponents Of User Fees Join Forces

New Alliance Rapidly Gaining Strength

More and more groups opposing the FAA's proposed user fee program are mobilizing and joining forces in their fight... and if some of the names already on the roster are any indication, this association could very well grow into a force the FAA and airlines might do well not to reckon with.

Representatives from rural and agricultural groups, charitable organizations, community airports, as well as aviation professionals, local officials and small businesses have announced the formation of the Alliance for Aviation Across America. This is a coalition formed specifically to fight the "user fees" proposal that threatens to impose serious tax hikes on small businesses and towns across America.  

Coalition members include the League of Rural Voters, National Association of State Aviation Officials, Air Care Alliance, National Farmer's Union, National Agricultural Aviation Association, the National Business Aviation Association, Angel Flight, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and hundreds of small and medium-size businesses from around the country, according to the Alliance. 

"Our coalition is here to send a clear message to lawmakers that we stand united against a radical "user fees" proposal which would decimate businesses and communities around our country through a huge tax hike.  This special interest legislation would benefit no one but the big commercial airlines," said Gene Wright, Mayor of Quinwood, WV, and a pilot and coalition member.

As Aero-News has reported, the FAA's "user fees" proposal was introduced as part of a plan to reauthorize the agency for another four years. It would directly offset a multi-billion dollar tax break for the airlines by imposing a new tax hike on general aviation -- the businesses, organizations and farmers and ranchers that use small planes.

"The aviation system is funded largely through a mix of taxes on each aviation segment, which are paid into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund (AATF). The taxes going into the AATF are generating record revenues, and will be sufficient to fund all modernization programs. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office anticipates a continued increase in revenue through 2016, and the White House Office of Management and Budget expects the AATF to top $21 billion by 2012," said Donald B. Marron, Acting Director, Congressional Budget Office, speaking to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Aviation, US House of Representatives, on September 27, 2006.

User fees programs currently in use in Europe have become "suffocating and extensive," said Carl Davis, coalition member and small business owner. They now include everything from pilot certification to safety-related weather checks.

The FAA's proposal also includes a tripling of the tax on aviation fuel to $.70/gallon, up from the current rate $.19 on average.

"Adding an additional 50 cents on top of the existing price could cripple general aviation." said Rep. John Salazar (D-CO), at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation on March 21.

"This self-serving proposal is based on a flawed argument that a plane carrying four passengers should be taxed the same amount as a plane carrying 400 people even though the experts and small businesses such as ours know that it is the airlines that drive the majority of the costs of the hub-and-spoke system," Bob Simmers, Aircraft Management Systems, told the Grand Forks Herald on March 10.

Pilot and coalition member Coz Passalacqua agrees. "This hub-and-spoke network, which moves thousands of flights through big hub airports, particularly during peak hours, is what creates the demand for most of the staff and resources, including senior air traffic controllers and specialized equipment."

The major airlines insist the proposal is critical for modernization, but they don't seem to realize it not only cuts the airline's contribution to modernization efforts, but slashes overall FAA funding by more than $600 million -- money that could fund modernization efforts, according to the coalition.

"The system is not broken" said Chip Gibson, coalition member and Mississippi-based small-business owner. He notes the AATF is generating record revenues, and the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office have all testified before Congress that the current funding structure can support the estimated costs of modernization. 

Members of the newly-formed coalition have also questioned whether user fees are really just a thinly-veiled effort to begin the process of privatizing the air traffic control (ATC) system, reduce Congressional oversight, and give airlines substantially more control over the day-to-day management of the system.

"We need to modernize our air traffic control system through full funding and accountability.  Cutting $600 million in funding for our air traffic control system and levying billions in taxes on small towns and businesses is just wrong," said Wright.

The AAAA cites numerous expert opinions that say the airline-backed proposal could impose severe economic hardship on airports, small towns and communities which are served by the general aviation industry but pretty much ignored by commercial airlines.

"Community airports that serve small towns are critical to our security, our mobility during national emergencies, and to our local economies" said Niel Ritchie, president of the League of Rural Voters and coalition member. "General aviation is crucial for medical care, disaster relief, traffic enforcement on rural highways, wilderness search and rescue, and business growth for small communities. In fact, during Hurricane Katrina, when roads were often impassable due to heavy flooding, some 400 small aircraft evacuated around 23,000 people and delivered tons of supplies to relief workers in just five days.

"The airline-backed plan is a poison pill for rural towns and communities across America," Ritchie continued. "This huge tax hike would ground many of these small planes and puddle jumpers that are the lifeline to these communities, impacting access to specialized medical care, disaster relief, and business resources."

The FAA proposal also slashes funding for the Essential Air Service Program and the Airport Improvement Program as well as eliminates funding for the Small Communities Air Service Program, all of which are critical for airport preservation. 

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee estimates that approximately 300 airports would lose their current grant funding under the new proposal. Many small airport operators fear that if general aviation activity decreases because of fuel tax increases, aviation-related business activity would inevitably decrease as well, possibly forcing the airports to close outright.

FMI: www.aviationacrossamerica.com/, www.faa.gov

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