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An Airborne Ruckus Hits the Hill

Members Who Fly Opposed to Fee Hike for Small Planes

If you want Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to get spirited about an issue, ask him about other Members’ efforts to impose new user fees on general aviation, the industry segment that includes corporate jets as well as the small private planes flown by amateur pilots — and a handful of Members.

Inhofe, at 72 years old, is still a flight instructor. And his affinity for aviation extends to his family: His daughters both held their wedding rehearsal dinners in the clan’s airplane hangar.

He worries that as part of this year’s Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, Congress could hike the cost for hobbyists and corporate jets by making them pay a greater share of the taxes used to support an air traffic control trust fund, which could in turn reduce the tax burden on commercial airlines.

General aviation’s opposition to that idea will take center stage on Thursday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on aviation financing. Inhofe, much to the chagrin of the small-plane sector, does not sit on that committee. But don’t count him out just yet.

“Whatever they do, if it is a dramatic increase over where it is today, when that gets folded into the FAA reauthorization, I might put a hold on the FAA reauthorization bill or at least prepare an amendment,” Inhofe said during an interview last week. “Besides that, there are many of us who are conservative in the U.S. Senate and House who have taken a pledge to oppose any new tax increase. I will hold their feet to the fire.”

Inhofe and other Member-pilots, including Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), say they want to help the general aviation industry in the FAA bill. As part of that they are working to shape the perception that it’s an industry dominated by fat cats who aren’t paying their share into the air traffic control system to one of more ordinary Americans who love the freedom of flying small planes.

Already, though, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has called for a new user fee in the general aviation system — a proposal that general aviation vehemently opposes.

The sector has fared better, so far, on the House side, where Graves and Hayes sit on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Although that bill does call for some increased taxes on the fuel used by private planes, general aviation lobbyists say they’re OK with the proposal. But the FAA bill still must go through the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

“I’m speaking out in a big way,” said Graves, who logs about 150 hours each year flying around his expansive district and throughout the Midwest.

Graves, like many small-plane pilots, flies according to visual flight rules, using landmarks to guide him, and does not rely on air traffic control for guidance.

“I’m paying for something that I don’t use,” he said. “We see that as ridiculous.”

The way Graves and his allies see it, the big airlines are trying to shift more costs to general aviation.

Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents companies that use general aviation for business travel, said having pilots in Congress can help his effort.

“Members of Congress who are pilots and fly in the system and understand how the system works obviously are knowledgeable on the subject matter and are easy to talk to about the technicalities,” Bolen said. “But these are big policy issues and aviation is a fundamental part of every Congressional district and every state.”

Bolen’s counterpart at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Phil Boyer, agrees. “When I’m talking to them, I can use all the acronyms,” Boyer said. “I don’t have to explain what turbine fuel is.”

Although Boyer’s and Bolen’s members represent different segments of the general aviation world, both are dead set against user fees. “It starts out just very, very small and very, very innocent and then it continues to grow,” Boyer said. “It’s the precedent that it begins to set.”

Hayes said he is trying to figure out what the next generation air traffic control system will look like and how much it will cost. “Let me put my arms around it. What are we paying for?” Hayes said. “The technology and the plans they proposed are terrific. And if we do it right, it could save you money.” And that would mean no need for user fees or dramatic new taxes, he said with great enthusiasm.

But despite that optimism, one prominent aviation lobbyist said the corporate jet advocates “have to feel vulnerable right now” to increases in their costs to the Uncle Sam.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the airline lobby, the Air Transport Association, said his group has “long been on record” calling for no change to the existing funding mechanism — a tax on fuel — for small planes that, like Graves’, don’t rely on the air traffic control system.

“Our effort to balance the funding equation has to do with corporate jet or turbine-driven aircraft that are using the air traffic control system,” he said, adding that FAA Administrator Marion Blakey bolstered his side at a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week, when she said airlines and their customers pay more than 90 percent of the aviation trust fund and use more than 70 percent of air traffic control services, while the corporate plane crowd pays about 6 percent and uses roughly 16 percent of the air traffic control system.

Whether it’s increased taxes or new user fees, Castelveter said the ATA is fine with whatever mechanism closes that gap.

“One of the things that gets very frustrating and annoying to us is people say that airlines want a tax break, which is absolutely anything from the truth,” Castelveter said. “We’re saying we want to pay for what we use.”

But not everyone agrees with those numbers. Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a coalition to put the breaks on the user fee idea, said the airlines paid far less than Blakey claimed. “The FAA’s own data shows that they only pay 77 percent of the revenues going into the trust fund,” she said.

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