The Dark Cloud of User Fees (Part 4): Aviation Associations Stepping Up to Oppose ATC Privatization and User Fees

6:41 PM

(Editor’s Note: This is the part 4 of an ongoing series looking into possible ATC privatization and how “user fees” are structured in the European Union. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

Over the past few days, every aviation association that matters in the United States had formed a strongly unified front opposing Trump’s scheme to privatize our nation’s Air Traffic Control system and impose damaging user fees on anything that flies except pigeons.

The proposed scheme was actually the brainchild of House Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), but Trump leaned in hard with it, and took center grandstand to announce the scheme, surrounded by CEOs from the airlines. The stagecraft to omit anyone from general or business aviation from that podium might have worked for the White House PR team, but it only inflamed the aviation industry, and prompted a swift reply.
First, 16 major aviation associations sent Congress a letter opposing the scheme, you can read about that in part 3 of this series. Aviation associations such as AOPA, EAA and NBAA have been all over this issue, and on June 19th, over 100 CEOs and corporate pilots who use business aviation signed a letter to both House and Senate leadership opposing the scheme. With help from NBAA and containing very pointed quotes from NBAA President Ed Bolen, the letter made it perfectly clear that this scheme would be financially damaging to U.S. business interests (at least the ones that were not airlines).
Well, I am happy to report that this intense and immediate pressure may have worked…at least to weaken the Trump administration's position on the issue. As you will read below, it is not, repeat NOT, over.
On June 21, Aviation International News (AIN)’s Kerry Lynch reported that Shuster heard the loud voices of the aviation industry, and has proposed an amended plan that is meant to appease all users of the airspace system except maybe the airlines. This is the kind of great coverage AIN provides to our community, and as usual, I think they are the Gold standard in aviation journalism. With permission, here are a few golden nuggets from Lynch’s story:

"The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today unveiled a new air traffic control (ATC) reform proposal that would carve the organization out of the FAA, but attempts to assuage concerns of business and general aviation and rural organizations by exempting Part 91 and 135 from new user fees and including access protections."

Excellent news. So what about that private ATC governing Board that we all think will be made up only of airline suits? AIN's Lynch reported on that too:

"The ATC reform proposal is largely based on the proposal that faltered in the House last year. But the changes in this year’s bill represent a series of compromises designed to reach some of the most vocal critics. This year's proposal is similar to last year's in that the new ATC organization would be run by the board, but Shuster said the board would have more transparency. The makeup of the 13-member board would be different, with one seat each to be given to people nominated by Part 121 carriers, cargo carriers, regional carriers, airports, business aviation and general aviation, along with the air traffic controllers and pilot unions. The Department of Transportation would get to appoint two members. Two “at large” seats will be set aside, ostensibly for people with financial backgrounds."

OK, this is sounding pretty good, Shuster. So just to clarify, no user fees for part 91 and 135 operators? Again, from AIN:

"As for the fee structure, Part 91 and 135 operators would pay the existing excise taxes to support the remaining FAA functions and the Airport Improvement Program. Also believed to remain intact are the $4.10 per-segment passenger fee and international overflight fees, among other taxes. Shuster said these taxes would be hashed out with the House Ways and Means Committee. The airline ticket tax, however, would transition to a user-fee system for Part 121 carriers to fund the new organization. A two-thirds super majority vote of the board will be required to raise the airline user fees."

So we in the parts 91 and 135 worlds do not get user fees, but the airlines do? Hmm, something tells me that’s not going to fly over at Mar-A-Lago with the very people who may have lobbied hard for this scheme in the first place.
Of course, as talk is cheap these days in D.C., nothing is for certain until the ink comes out of POTUS’ pen and this becomes actual legislation. And while this appears to be a step out of the woods on user fees, the horrible idea of ATC privatization is still very real. We cannot let up pressure to beat this back with every ounce of our collective might. Today, all of the associations came out vehemently against the new Shuster plan, acknowledging the changes to the user fee structure was not enough progress to justify the plan still being considered to privatize the ATC system. Read the responses here: AOPA | NBAA | EAA.

But let’s be clear about one thing right now:

We as aviators depend on these important aviation associations to do our bidding in Washington at times like this. And at this very moment – with Shuster taking a big step back from the abyss of imposing user fees on everyone – it appears the associations have succeeded in what can only be considered a small victory in a much larger battle. This is why if you are a part 91 or 135 pilot or aircraft owner, you need to be a paying member of AOPA, EAA and NBAA. Their Government Affairs and Communications teams are not cheap to maintain, and as you can see, they do stellar work when our freedoms to fly are literally in the line. Join today if not a member by clicking these links:

National Business Aviation Association

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

Experimental Aircraft Association

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