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Thu, Jul 26, 2007

Marion Blakey Gives Her Spin On User Fees

"It Don't Think It Will Break Anybody's Piggy Bank"

by ANN Associate Editor Annette Kurman

You gotta give FAA Administrator Marion Blakey credit. It takes courage to speak before a crowd of more than 850 general aviation enthusiasts, most of who are wearing "NO! on User Fees" buttons and stickers.

And while Blakey was given half-hearted applause Thursday, when she unofficially ducked under the tent into AirVenture's Honda Pavilion -- with local armed sheriff's deputies at each corner of the space, and after a bombsniffing dog had sniffed every inch of the stage -- she left to a mostly standing ovation, perhaps for her tenacity, frankness and courage... even though few minds were likely changed by what she had to say.

"We all know about the debate that's been unfolding inn Washington over the way we finance our air traffic system. And we've put our cards on the table," she said. "Now it's time for the aviation community to come together with Congress to get a bill done before our taxes expire on September 30 (2007)."

Her point about the funding plan the FAA endorses is this: "Fundamentally we believe a cost-based system will actually keep you (the GA public) flying instead of keeping you from flying, as some people are claiming."

She also spoke about the future of air safety, in particular ADS-B. "It lies at the heart of our next generation system of air traffic control."

Touting the program's successful start in Alaska, Blakey announced the FAA will be taking the system nationwide, awarding the contract on August 30.

"By that date, we'll award the contract to the company that's going to help us really launch full force into NextGen. We expect the deal will be worth close to $1 billion..."

By this time next year, she added, the FAA will be conducting its first test on a fully- functioning uplink device. "Now that's something to look forward to with the approach of 2010. That's when you folks start equipping, and you have until 2020 to comply."

However, what was on the minds of much of the audience was the fairness of the funding system now under Congressional consideration. Sticking close to her earlier script, Blakey spoke about the unfairness of airlines paying more taxes than the biz jet segment, the fastest growing segment in aviation.

Her example may not have had the impact on GA pilots that it would on, say, NBAA attendees and business jet owners, when she compared the fuel taxes of a commercial flight (number of passengers unknown) with those paid by a 10-passenger business jet flying the same route ($2,015 vs. $200).

"This shows how biz jets ... are paying for less than they should be, while everyday passengers are picking up the tab," Blakey said. "We think costs should be spread more fairly to all users of the system, so that you folks pay for what you get."

Grumbling from the audience. Hmm... Airliner: $2,015 taxes / 250 passengers [Blakey didn't give the number of passengers on her hypothetical commercial airplane] comes to $8.06 per person; the 10-seat biz jet pays $20/person. We'll say it again: Hmm.

Much of what she had to say about the FAA's funding proposal included comments that "costs should be spread fairly" and "a cost-based system will keep you (GA) flying."

"If it's one thing that the FAA and EAA can bank on is our willingness to work for the good of aviation," she said. "We both recognize the importance of modernizing air traffic control."

Blakey did note to LSA users, "Despite all the rhetoric you've heard, you won't get hit with one penny in user fees under our plan... unless you fly into one of the 30 most congested airports."

Comment from GA pilot Thomas Kruschke following the conference: "Once you open the door to user fees, charging for the first 30 (congested) airports, what's to prevent you from expanding that to … all controlled and uncontrolled airports in the US? Other revenue sources can be looked at before user fees."

"…if we don't do this the right way," said Blakey, "GA's future might be one that none of us wants, a future where congested hubs start to squeeze you out."

"The point is, without cost-based system that provides dedicated revenues for NextGen projects like ADS-B, there's the very real possibility that you won't be able to fly when you want, where you want. I can't put it any plainer than that."

Her comments and the questions and answers that followed did not change the minds of John Foose of Sammamish, WA, and Ed Livermore of Kerrville, TX.

Said Foose, "I thought she (Blakey) was sincere and genuine and believes in what she says." Her approach to funding, however, is not what the rest of the GA population thinks, he added. "My concern is that once it (user fees) starts, how do you stop it?"

Livermore was even blunter. "Her whole idea of funding is specious. Aviation would be moving from a current (stable) form of funding, which will become unstable with a decrease in GA flying."

In addition, Livermore added, current fees are collected from airline passengers in the form of taxes that they collect and held in trust for the government. If you move away from taxes to a fee for payment for services, he said, and an airline goes bankrupt, the government becomes just another creditor. "There goes the stability" of the funding system; "Who makes up that (uncollected airline fees)?"

Another issue he spoke to was the special board that would be organized through the FAA composed mostly of airlines. "There's the potential in the future," he said, "members will vote for (and to the interests of) airlines and not others."

Mark Wohlschiegel of Jupiter, FL,summed up his thoughts on user fees in one sentence: "User fees will accelerate the demise of general aviation."

The future of the GA segment lies with those in their 20s and 30s that GA needs to bring into aviation, he said.

EAA President Tom Poberezny agrees with that sentiment, noting that the decline of GA pilots from 830,000 to 600,000 has been dramatic. He would like to see those numbers move towards a million.

And in regard to user fees, Poberezny said, "We expect to win the issue. We believe in modern (aviation services), but we think there are different ways to fund it."

This is Blakey's last AirVenture as FAA administrator (though she promises to return as a volunteer... can you see her parking planes on the North 40? Neither can we -- Ed.), as her terms expires September 13, 2007. Current funding for the FAA ends September 30, 2007.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.eaa.org

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