NBAA, NATA, GAMA And AOPA Leaders Stage Major Assault On
It was a major show of unity on the part of the so-called
alphabet groups -- leaders from four of them testifying on Capitol
Hill Wednesday, all adamant against the possibility that user fees
will be imposed on general aviation in America.
The Bush administration and FAA, with backing from think tanks
like the Reason Foundation, are fast building a case to charge user
fees for air traffic services, a movement NBAA President Ed Bolen
centers on the contention that "general aviation isn't paying its
fair share." It was an impression that Bolen, AOPA President Phil
Boyer, NATA chief James Coyne and GAMA President Pete Bunce strove
hard to dispel Wednesday.
"When people have looked at general aviation's contribution,"
Bolen told ANN after his testimony Wednesday evening, "they have
only looked at the general aviation fuel taxes. They have
completely missed the fact that there are portions of the general
aviation community that are paying the commercial fuel taxes, the
commercial ticket taxes, the departure taxes and the international
When those contributions
toward offsetting the cost of government aviation services and
infrastructure, Bolen said, general aviation's contribution to the
Aviation Trust Fund jumps from $200 million (less than two-percent
of the fund's total revenues) to at least $600 million and up to
seven percent of the fund's income.
"I wanted to give (lawmakers) a different picture of how we pay
and how much we pay."
That was a theme repeated throughout the long day of testimony
before the Aviation Subcommittee as one after another, Bolen and
his fellow "alphabet group" leaders tried to dispel
inside-the-beltway thinking on how the Aviation Trust Fund is
"What seems to be going around as convention wisdom is,
'whatever your traffic levels are, that somehow equates to the cost
you impose on the system.'"
That conventional wisdom, he said, has airlines shouldering
90-percent of the money going into the trust fund while less than
70-percent of the operations that fund pays for are actually
incurred by the airlines.
Instead, Bolen said, airlines have put needless burdens on the
system by starting up hubs in places like Raleigh-Durham or
Nashville, then abandoning them a few years later. He also pointed
to the remarkable costs of maintaining complex hub systems in
places like Chicago.
"In fact, he said, "If you grounded general aviation tomorrow,
the cost of the system would not go down appreciably."
The Growing Rift Between GA And Airlines
Are airlines, struggling
to stay out of bankruptcy and still swimming in red ink, trying to
balance their books on the backs of general aviation and business
"Well, that certainly appears to be what they're doing," Bolen
told ANN. "They're certainly suggesting that they're overpaying
into the system. And they're certainly suggesting that there are
others who are not paying their fair share. They've been pretty
clear about that being general aviation."
It's a refrain heard more than once over the past couple of
months -- airlines are trying to reduce their financial input into
the aviation trust. Struggling against low-cost carriers, legacy
lines such as United, US Airways and Delta are drastically cutting
costs. They're restructuring routes and demanding concessions from
their employees' unions. With few places left to turn and still
hemorrhaging red ink, Bolen and other GA leaders believe the
carriers are trying to shift aviation services costs to general and
It's an argument made increasingly as the ongoing financial
slump among legacy carriers continues, even as passenger traffic
continues to rise beyond pre-2001 levels. Fares have risen several
times since the beginning of the year, but those increases have
been relatively small and mostly driven by the skyrocketing price
"It's not fuel."
That word from former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher
(right), speaking to a civic group in Naples, FL, back in
March. "Everybody says, 'oh, it's oil causing all
this.' Well, oil doesn't cause that.... If you're in the plastics
molding business, [the rising cost of] oil probably affects you
more than it does the airlines."
If it's not oil, or 9/11
or the outbreak of SARS that grounded travelers a couple of years
ago, then what is it?
"Right now, if you look at the majors in this country... Delta,
United, Northwest, American, US Air... you have a cost up here that
47-percent of is labor cost. Forty-seven percent up here,"
Stonecipher said, gesturing around his own neck. "That's where
United was [before bankruptcy].... And you've got JetBlue,
Southwest, [AirTran} -- those guys are down to 27-percent of their
cost. If you're going to succeed, you have to get that cost down
there." He pointed at his shoes.
Then there's the issue of what services are used by the airlines
and what are used by general aviation. AOPA President Boyer addressed that issue in an
interview with ANN last month.
"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."
A Coordinated Effort To Defeat User Fees?
It was a rare thing to see leaders from three of the major
general aviation groups on Capitol Hill in a single day -- a "very
long day" as some participants described it. But observers were
surprised at the level of unanimity among the three major general
aviation advocacy groups. Does this mean NBAA, AOPA GAMA and NATA
might work together to defeat user fees?
"I think good communications and coordination between general
aviation associations is essential. I think it's really important
that our community makes sure that we are in sync with each other
and we understand the numbers -- where they're coming from and what
Should the alphabet groups form an umbrella organization to show
their solidarity on the user fee issues?
No, said Bolen.
"Sometimes, the more formalized you try to make things, the less
nimble you are. I've got a really good personal relationship with
Phil Boyer, Jim Coyne with Pete Bunce. I think all four of us get
along really well. We can easily pick up the phone really quickly
and call each other. I think that's the easiest and best way...