The Dark Cloud of User Fees (Part 3): Business Aviation Stands to Lose Big

8:00 AM

(Editor’s Note: This is part 3 of an ongoing series looking at possible U.S. ATC privatization, and how “user fees” are structured in the European Union. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

On the very day that the Trump administration announced their flawed ATC privatization scheme – which could have a horrible user fee component – a group of 16 aviation associations released a joint statement opposing the scheme. I say “scheme” because if it were a "plan," it would include all stakeholders. But these 16 associations are not yet being consulted on the scheme, a fact that is not surprising given that Trump was surrounded by major airline CEOs at the announcement. That stagecraft speaks for itself. The letter was signed by:

Air Care Alliance
Aircraft Electronics Association
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
Commemorative Air Force
Experimental Aircraft Association
General Aviation Manufacturers Association
Helicopter Association International
International Council of Air Shows
National Agricultural Aviation Association
National Association of State Aviation Officials
National Air Transportation Association
National Business Aviation Association
Recreational Aviation Foundation
Seaplane Pilots Association
Veterans Airlift Command

This entire scheme reeks of cronyism, and to every pilot I've spoken with, it looks, feels and smells like a hostile takeover of our skies. Sure, that is dramatizing the issue...or is it? In normal times, all stakeholders would have been invited to sit down around a table, unified in their effort to modernize our Air Traffic Control system in a manner that benefits everyone. But we no longer live in “normal times”…just look at the way the Senate is currently handling their Health Care bill. It is being crafted in secret - no doubt in smoke-filled cloak rooms - with many Senators saying they do not even know what is in the bill they are being asked to vote on.
By not inviting those 16 signatory aviation associations to the discussion, it seems this is being crafted just like the way Health Care is being handled, like someone is trying to get away with something. And this is not about politics or about party, so point your flamethrower elsewhere. This is about doing what’s right for all users of the U.S. airspace system, not just the airlines. I would be making the same fuss if our former POTUS tried to launch the same kind of backdoor privatization/user fee scheme.
If this scheme ever becomes real legislation, everyone in aviation except the airlines stands to lose something. Because nobody in the aviation industry has a clue what the final scheme will look like, how much we all lose will remain an unanswered question…possibly for years (see below).
But one group that stands to lose big are business aircraft owners, pilots and operators. When you look at the user fee systems in Canada and the EU, both base their fee schedule escalations on MTOW. The smaller the aircraft, the less you pay…in theory. But the vast majority of business aircraft in the U.S. would fall above the cutoff line, meaning their overall user fees would be north of outrageous.
The 16 aviation associations that signed the letter presented to POTUS all are making as much noise as they can in opposition to the scheme. But I have my money on the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) for being out front on this issue fighting on GA’s behalf. A recent article published by NBAA on their website really spells this all out, and it is worth a look. Excerpts presented here are used with permission:

During a major industry forum, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen reiterated the association’s serious concerns with proposals that would essentially hand over governance of the nation’s ATC system to a private board, noting that the system is a public asset that has always served a variety of stakeholders, and should continue to do so. During a panel discussion on June 14 at RTCA’s 2017 Global Aviation Symposium in Washington, DC, Bolen said, “We must keep in mind that it’s a broad aviation system, not just an airline system. We want to ensure that public airspace, which belongs to the public, serves the public interest.”

Bolen made another excellent point regarding the standardization of the language used in this discussion:

“We are using a lot of words interchangeably,” Bolen said. “Reform, commercialization, modernization, privatization. We have to figure out what issue we are trying to solve, and how we solve it.”

A little later in the article, Bolen really got down to business, and brought up a point nobody else is talking about:

“He went on to cite estimates in the president’s budget, which show his proposal to remove congressional oversight for the system and place it under the authority of a new, private entity, could cost $26 billion to $46 billion, and take 10 years to accomplish.”

And Bolen wrapped his presentation by making the point we all need to be making loud and clear:

“In conclusion, Bolen said all aviation stakeholders should be given an opportunity to weigh in on proposed ATC system changes that could pose a threat to everyday Americans who rely on general aviation.”

Believe me, when it comes to understanding the needs of not only business aviation operators, but all of general aviation, NBAA gets it, big time. Other associations such as AOPA and EAA are seriously ramping up their efforts to fight this horrible scheme to privatize our ATC system too, and we as an aviation family need to support every one of these associations.
But when Ed Bolen talks, I listen. I really hope the Trump administration and Congress listens to him as well…and to Mark Baker…and to Jack Pelton…and to every pilot in the U.S. who has a dog in this fight. Because it’s far from over, and with these associations having our back by educating the public and our elected officials about the damage it can all cause, there is still a chance we can beat this thing back.

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