Blaine setting for Palin speech highlights a difference with McCain


It’s significant, perhaps, that Sara Palin’s visit to Minnesota on Friday is occurring at a general aviation airport — Anoka Blaine Airport. If there’s one area where she and her running mate disagree, it’s on the biggest issue facing general aviation : user fees.

Complicating the issue even more is that the “aviation community” leans heavily Republican.

For the last 2 1/2 years, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the largest lobbying arm of general aviation, has been opposing a Bush administration proposal to finance the Federal Aviation Administration with user fees, similar to how Canada finances its aviation services. (Full disclosure: I am a member of AOPA, however I lean toward a user-fee system.)

It says the surplus in the Aviation Trust Fund, paid for by taxes on general aviation fuel, airline passenger tickets, and cargo, should be used instead, and argues that the skies will be less safe because pilots won’t use air traffic control and other services designed to keep flying a relatively safe exercise.

The nation’s airlines want more of the cost of the system transferred to business and general aviation. Business and general aviation interests say it’s the airlines that are the biggest users, and should be the biggest funders.

The plan has plenty of supporters. “General aviation should pay more; the FAA says it provides only 3 percent of the financing for the air-traffic control system, yet it accounts for roughly 17 percent of its use,” the Rocky Mountain News editorialized at the height of the debate in 2007.

Sen. John McCain has leaned toward the airlines’ view, voting against an amendment to eliminate the Bush administration’s proposed $25-per-flight user fee on general aviation.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, McCain had a testy exchange when he tried to block the appointment of the AOPA president to a council that advises the FAA on aviation issues, partly because of the organization official’s opposition to user fees .

“I wanted to get at, which we should get at, the wealthiest people in America who are flying corporate jets around this country and not paying an extra penny for doing so, while average citizens, average middle income, lower income American citizens are paying, again, an increase in their cost of air tickets, while your fat cat friends pay nothing. “

McCain stressed that user fees would only apply to business aircraft. The general aviation interests insist that a user fee-funding system would only expand.

Who favored eliminating the user fee? Gov. Sarah Palin. She signed a resolution in Alaska in 2007 that opposed “the enactment of the provisions in the Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007 that impose user fees, increase aviation fuel and aviation gas taxes, reduce airport funding, and reduce Congressional oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Obama’s position? According to Evan Sparks, who writes about aviation policy, “As far as I can find, he’s not on record endorsing user fees, and the FAA reauthorization bill never came up for a final vote in the Senate.”

  • bsimon

    A fine example of how one politician’s core constituency is another politician’s ‘special interest group’. It should come as no surprise that the Gov of Alaska – which probably represents the highest per capita number of pilots in the US – is against user fees.

  • I lean toward a user-fee system

    For GA in general, or limited to biz jets? I think there is a valid case to be made that Class A airspace and larger airports are expensive to manage and that to a large degree biz jets are free-riding. The case is harder to make for a $25 charge every time a student needs to do some touch & goes in a 152.

    I also think history is on the side of those that say any fee initially restricted to biz jets will ultimately find its way into the wallets of 2-seat RV pilots. Many will (with good reason) believe that a governmental promise to not do so isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m not terribly nuanced on this, Dave. I tend to favor user fees, not because they’re particularly fair, but because they’re the only funding system that’s going to work in the long run.

    Why? Because, sure, there’s a surplus in the aviation trust fund, but we all know that trust funds are going to be used to make the budget deficit look better than it really is and neither Republicans nor Democrats — with one or two exceptions — have the courage to stop doing that.

    The larger question, to me, is whether a user fee system for paying for services in the United States will be accompanied by a corresponding decrease in assessments somewhere else or whether the fee just becomes another tax.

    Back when Reagan “reformed” the tax system and eliminated deductions for a whole host of things (funny, nobody ever mentions that when talking about cutting taxes), it was accompanied by a corresponding reduction in tax rates. That, of course, didn’t last long. So I’d be in favor of some protection there.

    I recognize the fear that it will kill general aviation in this country — not an insignificant fear here in Minnesota given that it’s home to the most popular GA aircraft company in America — but it was going to die soon anyway or at least be available to only the wealthy. Part of me says, “let’s just get it over with.”

    So overall I think we will be seeing more user fees in the U.S., more toll roads etc and now would be as good a time as any to have the debate on the issue.

    Heck, you pay a fee for a public defender in the court system, I figure you can pay a fee for an air traffic controller.

    That said, when they start imposing the fees, no, I won’t be asking for ATC help to keep me from crashing over your house. (g)

  • Well overall I don’t agree with added fees or taxes for that matter. The use of “the system” by GA is not a drop in the buck or the causing the real need for the fees anyway.

    Taxes, fees whatever you call them are not the solution usually when you get extra taxes, fees or regulations you get the administration of the fees by some bureaucrat who in turn usually uses up half or better of the fees administrating the collection and accounting of said fees.

    I have no issue paying my part for the use of the system, but again when I go into Class B airspace or file an IFR flight plan I am the exception not the majority.

    Unfortunately General Aviation is dying in this country, but that is a function of lawsuits and regulation helping to make airplanes price practically unaffordable, unless they are old. Now that is the real shame!

    How can we get people excited about flying again. I mean men have been dreaming about flying since time began!? I guess now we have XBOX and Video on demand.

    (Bob notes: Flying has been declining since long before video games. People can’t afford it. Kids don’t hang out at airports anymore looking for a ride because it’s not that big a deal to fly in the first place. Not like when commercial air travel was for the gliteratti.)

  • I’m more in favor of an increase in the avfuel tax. Somehow I feel better about “hiding” the cost in my hourly rate, rather than tossing out $25 every time I want to fly for 20 minutes. Besides which, the infrastructure is already in place to collect a tax. User fees will require an expensive and inevitably bloated new gov’t organization to be created to collect the funds, and the cost of that alone would eat some not insignificant portion of the revenue.

    Of course, an increased tax presents the same risk that it won’t be the end of it. We could easily triple the existing tax this year and end up paying user fees on top of that just a few years later. I’d want some protection too, but I don’t believe gov’t promises to have any credibility whatsoever. Which is why my retirement planning includes $0.00 of income from my social security “contribution.” I doubt that I will ever see a penny of those thousands and thousands of dollars I’ve “contributed.”

    I disagree that aviation is (or will be) only for the wealthy. There are plenty of $25k airplanes based at Bolton, and of course you can get a flying RV-6 in the mid 50s. People are paying that for SUVs these days. Here’s my prediction: charge them $25 to call the control tower and all you will see is a mass exodus to uncontrolled airports. You’ll soon see a dead airport where Bolton used to be, and no increase at all in revenue. I suppose they’d close the tower then and I could just move back in.