Legislation Aims to Cut Congestion

Posted July 15, 2007 at 11:00pm

Each day thousands of people take to the skies and board airplanes that will take them on business or vacation travel. Quite a few even take to the air as a hobby. Air travel has become such a routine part of life that we often take for granted the immense infrastructure needed to ensure that our loved ones get to their final destinations efficiently and safely.

As the chairman and the ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, we’ve understood for years that our nation’s

aviation system faces an impending crisis if we do not take action to modernize our air traffic control and update antiquated systems.

Given the nature of our aviation system, delays on the runways at O’Hare or Charlotte will be felt by travelers at our nation’s regional airports. When congestion increases, small communities are the first to lose flights or service. That’s unacceptable to us.

With that in mind, earlier this year we co-authored the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act to give the Federal Aviation Administration the resources it needs to build a state-of-the-art aviation system. We want to reduce congestion and delays while making sure passengers get where they need to be safely. We believe AIM represents the most appropriate and fairest way to spread the cost of these much-needed aviation improvements among the users of the system.

To pay for the next generation of air traffic control systems, our bill includes a $25 per flight surcharge on commercial and “high end” general aviation. It’s anticipated that this will help to generate nearly $1.6 billion over the next four years that will be dedicated to the modernization of the system.

Since we announced this proposed surcharge, we’ve heard from many in the general aviation community that this new fee is unfair. What they’re not saying is that 90 percent of general aviation users are exempt, including piston-driven aircraft, the kind you find lining the tarmac of our nation’s small airports. The recreational flyer, crop-dusters, small private planes and emergency aircraft all won’t see any increase in the cost of operating their aircraft — no surcharge, no taxes.

So who is paying? If you own a jet or large turboprop aircraft, the surcharge will apply. But to those companies fortunate enough to own these planes, paying $25 is minimal — especially when you take into account that average purchase prices for these types of aircraft are from $8 million and $40 million and the operation costs are, on average, $800 or more an hour for a large turboprop plane and $3,000 or more for a jet.

Again, we believe the surcharge represents a balanced and reasonable approach — one that ensures that those who use air traffic control services the most pay their fair share.

That is why we rejected the Bush administration’s proposal that included a host of user fees for aircraft certification and would have adversely impacted aircraft manufacturers and general aviation.

For instance, the administration’s proposal to hike fuel taxes up to 70 cents on both piston-engine and small aircraft would have made flying unaffordable for many recreational pilots. We strove instead to offer a more equitable and straightforward approach that would not reduce the incentive for general aviation pilots to fly.

In a separate recommendation for the Senate Finance Committee, we’ve outlined a proposal that would bring equity to the current system of taxes and fees, where there has been a historical imbalance between the commercial and general aviation fields.

Our plan retains existing taxes and fees paid by aviation users. However, over the next five years the 4.3 cents per gallon tax on fuel used by commercial airlines will be phased out. Fuel taxes on “high-end” jet aviation will be increased from 21.8 cents to 49.1 cents per gallon. Again, the increase will not apply to piston-engined aircraft — which are flown by the vast majority of our nation’s recreational fliers.

The AIM Act also rejects an administration proposal that would have made it financially harder for regional airports to make much-needed facilities improvements. Earlier this year, the Bush administration had proposed reducing funding for Airport Improvement Programs. For many airports, AIP funding is crucial to building new runways or terminals. Not only does the AIM Act restore AIP funding, but it grants airports greater flexibility on how best to spend those funds. Our bill continues the AIP cost-sharing formula — 95 percent federal and 5 percent local match — for airport projects.

What shouldn’t get lost in all of this talk about runways, air traffic control systems and surcharges is the human element of air travel. The U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world, but we have to stay vigilant when it comes to aviation safety. The AIM Act includes a number of provisions that will improve safety by providing the FAA with resources to maintain the necessary level of oversight of air carriers and foreign repair stations and upgrade the existing safety infrastructure at our airports.

For instance, the industry would be required to provide their passengers with information on on-time arrivals and flights that are chronically delayed. Carriers would have to make this information available to passengers either on their Web site or at the time of purchase of tickets. Airlines also would be required to develop a system by which passengers will be able to deplane aircraft after a predetermined threshold is met.

The air-traveling public will benefit from other provisions, including an FAA study on aircraft cabin air quality, expedited rulemaking regarding fuel-tank flammability, and a National Academy of Sciences study into pilot and flight attendant fatigue to help in evaluating flight-time limitations and rest requirements.

In the end, we must modernize air traffic control systems and build new runways to keep commerce and people moving everywhere. We’ve worked together to develop a proposal that is fair to everyone, requires users to pay their fair share and keeps us headed in a bipartisan direction so that our aviation system remains the safest in the world.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) are chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security.