The Dark Cloud of User Fees (Part 1) – Meet Swiss Pilot Vincent Lambercy

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(Editor’s Note: This is the part 1 of an ongoing series looking at how “user fees” are structured in the European Union.)

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

With the announcement of the Trump administration’s desire to privatize U.S. Air Traffic Control services – which by itself is a horrible idea – the ugly monster that is “user fees” is back on the table. Everything out of Washington D.C. right now indicates that user fees will be a part of this new re-structuring of FAA, and like all GA and business aviation pilots, this scares the hell out of me. Flying is already expensive, and while LSAs do bring those costs down, the GA community is not growing as much as anyone would like, and costs of both training and operations continues to be one of the biggest reasons. Add user fees to those costs, and it will not only stop any forward momentum GA has right now, it could be a fatal blow.
    
If the United States implements a user fee system similar to what EU pilots face, the price of that mythical $100 hamburger – which is now a $150 hamburger – could skyrocket. If that hamburger is located at an airport with a tower, or really anything but a small grass strip, the cost of that hamburger to be easily north of $200, maybe quite a bit north. When costs rise like this, people will park their planes, and potential student pilots may just kiss their dreams to fly goodbye.

How bad can it get?
    
Think about your aviation circle, all the people you know who fly recreationally, or use their aircraft for business aviation. I am willing to bet they are not all 1%ers, and many might be on strict flying budgets. It is safe to assume that if EU-style user fees are implemented here, many of these pilots will simply not be able to afford to fly. Planes will get parked, because selling them will be out of the question, as the floor will drop out of the used market. When all these people stop flying, they will no longer have to buy fuel or headsets or gear, and that Foreflight subscription so valuable now will be one of the first things to go. Student pilots will be a rare commodity, so expect flight schools to close there doors, joining the FBO on the field that also closed due to fuel sales and aircraft maintenance being in the tank. Major airframe makers will lay off 1,000s as fleet size drops off a cliff, and nobody but the very wealthy will be buying new ships when it costs so much to fly. The trickle down economics of user fees will be staggering, and it will affect everyone in the industry. Everyone. And when all those pesky GA aircraft are out of the system, the airlines can have the sky all to themselves, which is probably the point of this legislation.
    
In this ongoing series, I am going to introduce you to Swiss pilot Vincent Lambercy of onlinehangar.com who learned to fly in Geneva (LSGG), has been based in Lausanne (LSGL), and underwent training in Cannes (LFMD) as well as Egelsbach (EDFE). Vincent has been flying since 2000 and flew about 450 hours until 2008, when he became more an occasional flyer, for personal, financial and family reasons. Vincent has a European PPL(A) with night and instrument privileges for single and multiple engine piston, and these days, when he does fly, it is mostly in a Piper P32R-301 Saratoga.
    
In the subsequent parts of this series, through his own words, Vincent will tell you what it is really like to fly as a recreational pilot in the EU user fees system. He will get into specifics of some aspects of the system, how fees are paid, and the gigantic burden it all becomes. I will also present a look at the 19-page fee schedule of a Swiss airport, which at first glance is a confusing and endlessly-complex document. If you are a U.S.-based recreational or business aviation private pilot concerned about user fees, this will all read like a slasher movie script.
    
If you think there is some sort of flat rate for a hamburger chasing run, you’d be very wrong. The EU system of collecting user fees is so complex, and varies so much by country, it blows my mind. Safe to say, if someone over there is thinking about visiting a local flight school and obtaining their European PPL, one look at these fee schedule docs is guaranteed to scare them away fast. When they can look forward to paying extra for every touch-and-go, racking up more charges if they need to go around, and paying insane “en route” fees for an XC trip across multiple countries (in an aircraft weighing over "two metric tonnes" MTOW or 4,409 lbs), you can bet they may re-think that dream to fly and walk away.
    
So stay tuned right here on Airplanista, and please share these articles on your social media channels. While we pilots know the mainstream media is not even mentioning us in their reporting of the ATC privatization and user fees story, we as an aviation family need to fire up our base and put major pressure on our representatives, because this is not a done deal.
    
But we do know what we are up against now, and they have very deep pockets. When Trump announced this plan, he was surrounded by airline CEOs on stage at the press conference with anyone representing recreational flying nowhere to be found. Even if he just invited two people - NBAA President Ed Bolen and AOPA President Mark Baker - I might be willing to think this could end up as a fair deal for GA in some way. But when the only people there are your airline pals from the golf course or Mar-A-Lago, it is clear what this really is: 

A dark cloud hanging over GA, a hostile takeover by the big airlines ready to potentially knock us out of the sky.
    
And it all makes me sick.

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