User Fee Debate Overshadows FAA Reauthorization Bill

It is amazing how something so good can happen at the same time as something so dumb.  On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 which provides four years and $63.4-billion in funding for the FAA.  This follows 23 short-term funding bills over the past five years.

All of the experts applauded this action as it provides a certain amount of stability for an organization that has been in limbo for half of a decade.  Most people overlook the fact that the lack of funding for the FAA has also meant a lack of funding for a lot of very important airport development projects.

The irony of the situation is that just the day before, on Monday, President Obama released a budget that included user fees of  $100 per flight as well as increasing the passenger security fee from as low as $2.50 to as high as $7.50 over the next 6 years.  This increase could cause very serious issues for an industry that is still struggling in a variety of ways.

It is amazing to me that you could do something so detrimental the day before doing something so valuable.

The first concern is obviously money.  Aviation companies, both commercial and business, are struggling to make ends meet in any way that they can.  Commercial airlines will not be affected quite as much since they will simply pass the fee on to the passengers which they won’t really notice either since the $100 per flight will spread out to less than a dollar for most flights.

The security fee will be worse, but again, airlines will pass it along to the passengers, and with the high price of tickets most people will simply write it off.  But I know that I for one am tired of paying more and more for plane tickets.

Bigger business aviation companies will also not feel the pinch nearly as much since $100 really isn’t that big of a deal when you are dropping tens of thousands of dollars on fuel for every trip.  The real pain will be felt by the little guys who have less of an impact on fuel purchases, but who are responsible for a much larger portion of the total flights.

These smaller jets routinely purchase only a few hundred dollars worth of fuel because that is all they need.  They also fight tooth and nail to not pay landing fees at FBO’s because even $50 more for each flight makes a huge difference to their bottom line.  Having worked at an FBO I have seen how hard these guys fight for every dollar, because they have to.

Now they are proposing that these users pay an additional $100 for each and every flight, if they fly in controlled airspace.  Talk about a gray area.  Even people who teach aviation have a tough time defining what exactly controlled airspace is.

Does that mean that every little single-engine prop is going to have to come up with an extra $100 for every flight when they are only spending $50 on fuel?  But this becomes a much bigger issue than just money.

If the choice is between paying $100 and simply flying VFR instead of IFR, then what choice are most of these little guys going to make?  A lot of them are flying short legs anyways, so how hard is it to just fly VFR?  The vast majority of passengers won’t even realize that their safety is at risk as opposed to being under the control of air traffic controllers.

They use the excuse that aviation needs to pay for its own security, which in principle I don’t have any problem with.  The problem that I have is that the government continues to impose new rules and regulations and then expecting users to just eat the costs.  In reality, how much safer are we now than we used to be?

My own personal feelings about TSA will have to wait for another day, but the point is that the government once again feels that throwing money at a problem will be a solution despite all of the evidence to the contrary.  Look at most government-funded programs and you will see that money is generally not the real issue.

So, while I am ecstatic that the FAA is now funded for a period that will allow some serious work to take place on NextGen ATC, and a bunch of other badly needed development, I hate to see that the government is asking for even more of a sacrifice from an industry that is already struggling.  Pretty much every sector is struggling, and they all need to make changes and pull their own weight, but the changes to these fees simply is not the answer.