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Thu, Apr 21, 2005

A Chat With Phil (Part Two)

Why A Simmering Battle Between GA And The Airlines Could Mean User Fees

By ANN Senior Editor Pete Combs

Read Part One

If you sense a battle looming between the airlines and proponents of general aviation, AOPA President Phil Boyer says you're not wrong.

"The airlines are at the bottom of an economic pit," Boyer told ANN. "Was it 9/11/01? Probably not. That probably accelerated their current condition."

Depending on who you ask, that condition is either very serious or even critical. The director general of the IATA said earlier this week that, worldwide, airlines have lost upwards of $35 billion dollars since terrorists used commercial aircraft to attack the US.

That's why Boyer thinks the airlines, like wolves in the dead of winter, are scouring the countryside, looking for anything that will sustain them. But, he said, don't blame 9/11.

"It was probably high salaries, consolidation of routes, low cost carriers..." all those things, he said, probably contributed more to the current fiscal distress suffered by legacy carriers like United and US Airways.

So, in their desperate efforts to improve the bottom line, Boyer said, the airlines are looking to shift some of the cost for America's air transportation network onto General Aviation.

"Their (the airlines') claim is, 'we pay 90-percent of the cost for operating the air traffic system and we aren't 90-percent of the users. There are other users out there who we subsidize.

"And you know," he continued, "to some extent, they're right."

Okay, we'll wait a moment for those who've fainted to recover.

"When they say, 'WE pay,'" Boyer continued, "they [the airlines] don't pay. I don't see the captain sitting up in the left seat getting his credit card out to pay the bill for that flight. I see him turning around and looking back at 200-300 passengers who have a 7.5-percent tax added to the price of their ticket. THAT'S who pays."

GA doesn't have that luxury, Boyer told ANN. "When I'm sitting in the left seat of my Cessna 172, I don't turn around and see anybody behind me paying the tax when I buy my fuel."

But that aside, Boyer said, he agrees -- the airlines do pay for some services that General Aviation pilots use. Then again...

"Air traffic service," Boyer said. "Do we need Class B airspace if there were no airlines? Absolutely not. It's there for the airlines. We're an incremental user. Is that control tower at the airport there for GA or for the airlines? I could go on and on. I think that debate is going to fall down to that kind of level."

Still, like it or not, Boyer believes there will come a day when GA pilots will indeed have to reach into their pockets to fund their own air travel. "So what services do we truly use -- just us? And when I say 'just us,' I don't even mean business jets. I mean personal aviation."

Boyer explained that his concept of personal aviation has a lot to do with the pilot whose car has a license tag that says, "My Other Car Is An Airplane." You know, the guys who generally fly low and slow. So what services does that person use?

"Flight services. That's one thing. That's why, historically, AOPA has been on the side of (NAATS -- the flight specialists' union), on the side of protecting Flight Services."

That, however, does that square with AOPA's support for handing the operation of FAA Flight Service to private contractor? Earlier this year, the FAA contracted with Lockheed-Martin to operate FSS and run it like a private enterprise. Wait, said Boyer. The costs associated with Flight Services were getting out of hand. "$600 million. $27 every time you call to get a briefing and it would be $40 if it wasn't offset by DUATS, costing only $2.00. That's just absurd. And we were headed towards getting charged for that stuff. So we supported (the change)."

The result? Boyer pointed to Lockheed plans for state-of-the art equipment and facilities, saying pilots, in the long-run, will benefit greatly from handing FSS to Lockheed. "And it will save -- save -- $2.2 billion over ten years. So here we are, holding our hand up and saying, 'we supported this."

Is the FAA setting general aviation up to pay user fees? Without a doubt, Boyer told ANN. "I think the federal government is bewildered by what it sees as a financial catastrophe out into the future -- IF all kinds of scenarios develop. I've never seen this kind of orchestrated approach."

Indeed, when asked about a recent NATCA study that found the FAA is manipulating the ratio of infrastructure and operational costs in such a way that the Aviation Trust will dwindle to crisis levels by 2007, Boyer said he, like NATCA study author Ruth Marlin, believes the FAA is creating a crisis to help bail out the airlines.

"In the end," Boyer concluded, "This is something Congress is going to have to decide." And if there's one thing AOPA is especially good at, it's getting pilots' opinions before members of Congress.

FMI: www.aopa.org

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