User Fees in: Obama Out!

President Obama’s latest budget proposal, which is being heralded as a “jobs act”, contains within it what I consider to be a threat to aviation safety and a threat to general aviation’s ability to fly. They are proposing a $100 per flight user fee charge to use Air Traffic Control services we already pay for. The bill claims we do not pay our fair share while conveniently ignoring that the system primarily exists to serve airline safety. It gives general aviation no credit for the equipment we have installed and trained to use to make the system safer for everyone. Those costs are there for us whether we use the system or not.

The bill and the wording in the bill shows that the proposal is based on a false perception that aviators and fat cats are in the same class. That is not only ill-conceived but shows no understanding of the aviation industry. As an example, the bill states this fee will be paid by users of “controlled airspace”. Honey, there is very little uncontrolled airspace in this country, especially in the populated states, unless we all fly at less than 700 feet. What the bill meant to do was charge a fee for anyone who uses the ATC system, which is a different thing entirely. (DOH!) Moreover, it establishes an unfunded mandate, as it does not address the additional bureaucracy that will be needed to determine who owes the fee and then track him or her down and get him or her to pay it. It would take one for VFR customers; IFR customers can simply be asked to provide a credit card number when they file their IFR flight plan. I suppose we can also establish a frequency at every air traffic control tower where our already overtaxed air traffic controllers can take your name and credit card number and punch it into the system, giving you a special code you can give ground control when you get ready to taxi that shows you are a paying customer. We would still need to address how the system would collect the fee when you called in to ATC from the air; it would provide a great excuse to hire a government worker whose only job was to run up to your airplane as you taxi in, tackle you as you get out, and arm wrestle you to get your fee.

The bill tried to douse the ire of the aviation community (especially AOPA and EAA) by declaring that “recreational piston aircraft” would be exempted from the ATC fee. Someone tell me what is a “recreational piston aircraft”? Is my airplane a “recreational piston aircraft” when we’re going for the hundred dollar hamburger but not when my wife and I are using it to travel and see family (using less gas than our car)? How the hell will the FAA be able to tell what that is? Since they won’t, in the end, all piston aircraft WILL pay the fee. And if that’s the case, then we will see a mass exodus away from using ATC services. That may be what the Administration wants because they can ultimately shrink the budget if fewer controllers are needed. Kind of also makes me wonder whether most of General Aviation needs to start saying to the FAA we’re not sure it makes sense for us to go to the expense to equip for Next Gen, since we’re not going to be flying in “controlled airspace”. By this Administration’s definition of the term, that is.

It’s hilarious that this is all rolled into a “jobs bill” that will, with this fee, cost jobs at every airport that has a control tower. On our trips to visit with my wife’s family using our airplane, we would not stop at two controlled fields we currently use. Those fields would lose the money we spend on gas, food, supplies, and sometimes maintenance. Their towns would no longer suffer the possibility of us spending money to rent a hotel room or go out for meals or a show in the event of an overnight stay. We would, instead, migrate to smaller fields and towns where a one hundred dollar fee for trying to be safer would not get in our way. I’m not going to let the government make it too expensive to see Grandma…

Moreover, the bill seems to imply that all commercial activities would suffer the fee, and flight training is one of those. As if the profit margins from flight training activity weren’t small enough, this fee will tack on a one hundred dollar per flight charge to every training flight at schools located with control towers. How many flight schools will afford that? ZERO! As a result, we’ll see them relocating to smaller fields or simply closing down because they can’t afford to operate. When aviation activity is already in decline, this is one of the dumbest things this community can be asked to tolerate.

From day one, the Obama Administration has demonstrated a clear “anti-aerospace” bias while continuing to use the very tools the industry has provided. Its early rhetoric against the business jet community and now its ignorant proposal to incorporate an aviation user fee system in addition to the fees we already pay are just two examples of it. I have stated for the record and do it again here…I will vote against any politician who tries to or does institute a direct ATC-related user fee system, not only because of the effects of that fee on the industry but because of its affects on aviation safety, all of which are being glossed over. When any change is not fully examined, you can bet in the long run it will be bad. This change is NOT well thought out…

When 2012 comes around if this aviation user fee has gone in, I’m going to vote Obama out and include in that mandate every politician who agreed on this issue with him. That is something you can take to the bank, which is more than most of us can claim about this bill.