The McCain Mutiny
All Americans enjoy the world’s finest system of airports and airways. It would be difficult to think of anyone in America who does not benefit in some way from our aviation system.
People who have never ridden on an airplane of any size and people who have never been to an airport and never will still benefit from our aviation system. Why? Because aviation impacts everything we manufacture and every service we enjoy.
Piper Cubs deliver parts on-site to repair wheat combines in Kansas so the harvest can continue. Small twin-engine aircraft deliver medical specialists to hold clinics in rural/mountain America. Faster prop-jets and turbine-jets move donated organs to major trauma centers for life-saving transplants. All this, and we haven’t even mentioned over-night package delivery, business travel or just taking the kids on an airliner to their grandparents.
Amazingly, the non-flying public pays very little for the myriad benefits they receive from our system of airports and airways. Seventy percent of the money needed to build, maintain and operate our aviation system comes from the federal and state excise and sales taxes levied on aviation fuels and from the passenger facility charges paid by those who ride the airlines.
Those monies go into the federal aviation trust fund – a fund that is “supposed” to be used only for airport and airway improvements. Unfortunately, the federal aviation trust fund is often used by Congress to mask billions of dollars in non-aviation related pork-barrel spending increases. In fact, $57.3 billion dollars that should be spent to modernize our airports and airway systems is being held hostage just to make the budget deficit “appear” smaller.
Last year, by a 316 to 110 margin, Congressmen “Bud” Shuster and James Oberstar sponsored and helped pass H.R. 1000 which will unlock the aviation trust fund so it can be spent for aviation purposes. But when the bill got to the U.S. Senate, pork-barrel politics took over.
Not only is the Senate refusing to unlock the aviation trust fund, certain U.S. Senators want to eliminate the 30 percent of the FAA’s budget that comes from general fund revenues. So doing would trigger even higher fees on those who use the aviation system or increases in aviation fuel taxes.
In normal times, the Senate and the House would find an acceptable compromise. But not this year. Senator John McCain is blocking any progress toward a compromise until America West Airlines (headquartered in McCain’s State of Arizona) gets more slots at Chicago, Reagan National and New York Airports.
As a result, whatever airport improvement funds are eventually appropriated will not be available in time for our cold-weather states to do much, if any, airport construction in 2000. In McCain’s Arizona, airport repair and construction can continue year-round. But Colorado, for example, will likely lose $35 million in FAA airport construction projects for 2000.
In aviation circles, this refusal to allow the timely passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act is called: The McCain Mutiny. Pilots and airport managers across the land are furious with McCain for his dog-in-the-manger position which is: Give my Arizona airline those gate slots or else. Such dogmatism is reminiscent of McCain’s defense of the business practices of jailed Arizona insurance mogul Charles Keating -- a defense that earned McCain charter membership in the infamous “Keating Five.”
Both George W. Bush and McCain are former pilots, so aviation issues are not foreign to either GOP presidential hopeful. Bush flew the U.S. Air Force F-102 Delta Dagger fighter-interceptor. McCain was shot down in a Navy jet over North Vietnam.But since Bush supports putting the aviation trust fund to work for aviation and McCain does not, Bush will likely have the support of Americas aviation community.
Meanwhile, Senator McCain, the self-proclaimed campaign finance reformer, is being flown all over America (for only the price of a first-class airline ticket) on corporate jets provided by railroad conglomerates CSX and Union Pacific and telephone giant Bell South.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and an active general aviation pilot.