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Clay Smith, fixed-base operator of Pryor Field, said the bill introduced in Congress this week is a 'strike at the wrong thing, and itís purely politically motivated.'
Daily photo by John Godbey
Clay Smith, fixed-base operator of Pryor Field, said the bill introduced in Congress this week is a ďstrike at the wrong thing, and itís purely politically motivated.Ē

Losing the freedom to fly?
Small-plane pilots worry fees may ground them

By Paul Huggins ∑ 340-2395

Jeff Chunn used to fly his plane weekly after he got his pilot license four years ago, even commuting to work by air occasionally.

A dollar increase in fuel prices two years stopped his recreational flying, and now he flies only if he has a purpose. Reducing flights to once or twice a month seemed like a drastic change, but the Hartselle resident worries that new FAA financing proposals will ground his traveling freedom altogether.

He and other piston-engine airplane pilots fear they'll be forced to sell their planes if Congress approves a bill calling for sweeping changes of how the government funds the Federal Aviation Administration.

The bill could bring a David vs. Goliath battle between small-plane pilots and major airlines.

Chunn said the biggest worry for him and other general aviation pilots is that their gas taxes would quadruple.

They also would pay a number of new user fees if Congress approves the Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007.

The bill was introduced Tuesday in Congress, three weeks after the Bush Administration proposed it.

Clay Smith, fixed-base operator of Pryor Field, said the proposal has it roots in the major airlines and is just another attempt by the FAA and airlines to develop a funding system that requires less government oversight.

"It's a strike at the wrong thing, and it's purely politically motivated," he said.

While the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has said the higher fuel taxes and new fees could destroy the world's best general aviation system, Smith said, it's too early to tell how it could impact the 165 planes at his airport, and that's his biggest source of opposition to the bill.

Many of the user fees remain undetermined or could be subject to yearly increases based on changing funding needs, he said. This includes fees to take off and land at airports with control towers, which are required for pilot trainees.

"They're wanting to get something approved without defining what it is," Smith said.

It is spelled out that the fuel tax would increase from 17 cents to 70 cents per gallon, raising flying costs by more than $5 per hour. There also would be a new $40 fee to register medical records, which is in addition to the $70 for the medical examination. Paying a flight examiner for required checkrides would have the added cost of a $50 certificate.

The FAA said the new funding system is necessary to generate enough revenue to install the NextGen air traffic control system, which the country must have to keep up with the increasing pace of passenger and cargo traffic.

The question Congress will be asking in the coming weeks is whether overhauling the way the FAA is funded is necessary to buy NextGen.

"Why do we need to revamp the system if we don't need to?" said David Gillies, spokesman for Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Illinois, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee. "His basic feeling is he has not seen any indication that the current system cannot handle the financial needs of the systems going forward."

Costello said last month that the proposal would raise about $600 million less in 2008 than the current tax system.

The FAA said the proposed revenue structure is "rational, stable, equitable and cost-based, while providing incentives to the FAA to control costs," which the current tax system fails to do.

The FAA justified quadrupling the general aviation gas tax because the current tax amount doesn't come close to paying for the services used by small-plane users. Furthermore, it said the tax percentage of the total aircraft operating costs would still be less than 5 percent, much lower than commercial airlines and only slightly higher than automobile users.

Smith said that line of thinking is inconsistent with how Congress funds other transportation systems.

"If you want to build the same situation for other modes of transportation, you would let buses and truckers go free, but charge all the automobiles for the interstate system," he said.

General aviation must be protected, Smith said, because it serves a valuable role for the business community. He noted that of the 165 planes at Pryor Field, 35 percent are operated by businesses, and of the privately owned planes, less than 10 percent are for recreational use.

The FAA's funding structure expires Sept. 30, so Congress must pass the proposed bill by then.

Costello said don't expect the final draft to look the same as what was introduced Tuesday.

Costello and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said they introduced the bill as a courtesy to the White House and their action does not indicate their blanket endorsement.

w air traffic control system

The Federal Aviation Administration proposes a new funding structure to pay for the Next Generation air traffic control system.

NextGen would replace 40-year-old ground-based, voice-driven technology with satellite-based, cockpit-to-cockpit air traffic management. It's capable of handling two to three times current traffic levels.

The FAA said this would alleviate passenger delays as well as reduce travel times. It also said the bill eliminates the domestic passenger ticket tax on airlines and reduces the international ticket tax by 50 percent. Other programs connected to the bill would reduce emissions and noise, save gas and improve water quality through enhanced de-icing operations.

The funding structure would change from a mostly taxed-based source to a predominantly user fee system.

The proposal ties 53 percent of the FAA budget to user fees, 28 percent to fuel and international travel taxes and 19 percent to general fund taxes. Funds for the current budget of $14.3 billion breaks down to 77 percent from aviation taxes and the aviation trust fund and 23 percent from general fund taxes.

Paul Huggins

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