Aviation user fees: A question of fairness
A recent Heritage Foundation article suggests a costly upgrade of the FAA’s air traffic control system is needed. But the author (apparently, not a pilot) must not be aware that already-in-use aircraft-guidance technologies are making the FAA’s current air traffic control system, not just out-dated, but dramatically less expensive for the flying public.
Today, even non-aviators use Global Positioning System (GPS) in their automobiles, trucks, mobile telephones and boats. Hikers and skiers use it, as well. Great as it is, GPS only does one thing: It tells its owner where he or she is. But no one else knows.
Fortunately, the already proven Automated Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast or ADS-B technology can tell any ADS-B-equipped aircraft (be it a big Boeing or a small General Aviation Cessna or Piper or Beechcraft, etc.), not only where it is, but also informs the FAA and other nearby aircraft of its direction of flight, altitude and speed over the ground. And does so in real-time, within seconds.
The expense of the on-board ADS-B device is paid for by the aircraft owner, not the taxpayer. The system uses GPS satellites already put in place and paid for by the Department of the Defense (DOD), not the FAA. The price of the on-board ADS-B device is expected to fall from $15,000 to about $2,500 – the cost of a decent aircraft GPS.
When ADS-B is added to the already in place and working GPS and Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) aircraft navigation systems, the FAA can accelerate the decommissioning of hundreds of its ground-based and expensive-to-maintain systems of Variable Omni Range (VOR) and Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) devices. FAA labor and equipment costs will plummet.
But this is not to suggest the FAA will wither and go away entirely. Even with ADS-B, FAA terminal traffic control services would still be needed in the airspace around the 300 or so commercial service airports where high volumes of airliner traffic require sequencing and separation of aircraft into Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) approaches.
But that still leaves about 5500 airports, your community airports, with considerably less traffic volume and used mostly by General Aviation aircraft – airports that are being reliably and safely accessed by aircraft using ADS-B and/or GPS/WAAS and/or older technologies.
Even with its costly air traffic control workforce drastically reduced, the FAA would still have the important functions of: aircraft inspections, pilot certification and the awarding of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants from the federal aviation trust fund.
Currently, the federal aviation trust fund gets it money from the 7.5-percent airline ticket tax and from the 19.4-cent-per-gallon federal excise tax on aviation fuels. This system is highly efficient because the airlines simply remit the ticket tax to the IRS. The aviation fuel taxes are collected at the six refineries where aviation fuels are produced. Currently, fewer than 20 IRS employees are needed to collect billions of dollars and put them into the federal aviation trust fund.
Unfortunately, the airlines want to cure their largely poor management-inflicted financial problems by shifting about $2 billion dollars of their costs over to General Aviation with a complex system of 13 additional user fees for FAA services. That would force the IRS to hire several hundred more tax collectors. Inexplicably, the FAA (ignoring the huge savings that ADS-B will bring), wants to increase the federal tax on aviation fuels by 336-percent.
But, if this airline/FAA effort succeeds, it would truly be a case of punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty because most FAA facilities and services were created for the airlines. They were not created for General Aviation.
Indeed, when flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), General Aviation aircraft can fly safely and reliably without any FAA services at all. The airlines, however, must fly IFR no matter the weather. But now that they have created a costly system, the airlines don’t want to pay for its operation and maintenance. They want General Aviation to pay for it. How fair is that?
Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, a pilot for 38 years and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and 21 Air Medals, is an independent contractor/representative with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The views expressed here are not necessarily those of AOPA. Dr. Hamilton and his wife co-hold a world aviation speed record and are the co-authors of a series of espionage thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2007. William Hamilton.