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General Aviation User Fees

Are they equitable? Are they wise? Are they necessary?

Those organizations involved with General Aviation matters generally consider user fees to be inappropriate.

Governments and service providers world-wide are advocating and implementing user fees for access to the world's airspace and airports. Should all users pay? On what basis should their charges be assessed? Should there be exceptions to these fees? What guidance exists related to economic oversight and regulation?

User groups in the USA - AOPA and EAA among them - have had a modicum of success at, as a minimum, delaying the application of fees to General Aviation aircraft. In Canada, COPA has had only limited success by achieving agreement that such fees should not be “unreasonable” and in negotiating a relatively nominal amount for private aircraft owners' fees.

On a world-wide basis the airlines, through the International Airline Transport Association, IATA, is attempting to have a flat charge apply to airways users, regardless of aircraft weight and size. They claim it is unfair that airlines alone should carry the financial burden of maintaining the air navigation systems alone. Airlines infer that particularly the business jets, and likely more recently the specter of Very Light Jets, VLJs, while taking up 'their' airspace, do not pay equally for the same airspace an airliner occupies. This, they claim, is not equitable. Their argument implies that the airline corporations actually pay for the services, and that GA operations do not.

On the surface the public can accept IATA's logic. However, although the airlines claim that user charges cost them money (implying they should therefore enjoy preferential treatment), we must all remember that, unlike private aircraft owners, the airlines don't actually pay the charges. Their user charges are passed on to the passengers when they buy tickets. It may even be argued that the user charges passed on to the passengers don't all find their way back into paying the user charge, but rather end up as a dividend for the airline's shareholders.

Private operators pay charges with after-tax dollars. By contrast, airlines sell tickets (including the user fees surcharge) way before they deliver the pre-paid service to the passenger - sometimes up to 6 months ahead of the flight. Then the airplane flies and incurs the charges. Then an invoice is sent to the airline some 30 days later. Then the invoice is finally paid, perhaps 2 months later. In other words, the airlines are in a business where they can collect user charges (and the interest they earn) up to 9 months before the charges -- already paid for by the passengers -- are actually paid out in the form of their own 'user fee'. It seems unreasonable that the airlines would claim they single-handedly pay for the air navigation system when in fact it is their passengers who are paying the user charges, often through a specific surcharge for the flight. Given that the airlines collect user charges so much in advance, it can be argued that user charges are in fact a money maker for the airlines.

General aviation uses the air navigation system - simply because it exists. However, the air navigation system does not exist because of a need generated by GA. It exists for the benefit of the airlines. Should pedestrians have to pay for traffic lights in a city through the taxes citizens pay? Or should the cost of that kind of traffic control system be borne totally by the vehicle owners? Should every such vehicle - large, small, commercial, public service - pay the same amount toward the installation and maintenance of a city's traffic light system? As far as the pedestrian (taxpayer) is concerned, each type of vehicle poses the same risk and congests equally. As a user of the traffic light system should the pedestrian be required to pay a portion of the cost decided by the commercial users' requirements for the road? GA finds itself in an analogous situation with regards to user charges.

Ham radio operators do not pay a user fee for using the airwaves because we have long recognized their contributions to public need and safety. Although in some parts of the world they provide a daily service, their services in developed countries are required only in times of emergency. Yet they use up available spectrum, a range of frequencies coveted by potential commercial users. Similarly GA provides such services in times of need, be it crop spraying in times of insect infestations, search and rescue operations, medevac flights, aerial survey, supply and communications to remote areas.

We need to value our transportation infrastructure more. It is not until a bridge collapses somewhere, or an ice storm, flood or forest fire closes access to communities that suddenly we learn to understand the potential value and benefit of having an alternate way of travel. Since the road infrastructure has become so complete (and incredibly we have dismantled the railway system) we have adopted the motor vehicle as our only means of transport.

User fees are yet another imposed financial burden to the significant regulatory financial burden faced by aircraft owners and operators. By themselves GA's contributions to user fees offer little if any cost benefit to the maintenance of the air navigation system. Adding further cost to GA aircraft operations will serve to limit the growth of the GA sector and possibly threaten its continued existence. We need only look at Europe to see the degrading effect high user fees have had on pilot currency/safety and access to this mode of transport by other than the wealthy. Is confining ourselves to an eventual single mode of transport a wise move, given that we will face periodic disasters?

If any of us feel that we should retain not only our freedom to choose personal flying as a means of transport but also be capable of affording it, we must speak out. Given the number and diversity of our GA sector, it should not and cannot pay for what airlines consider GA's fair share of the costs. The air navigation system costs are neither controlled by the GA sector nor are they incurred because of the GA sector. Rather, let us apply the appropriate foresight and work together (governments, industry and GA) to assure the continued availability of alternate means of travel. GA pays indirectly for airport and air navigation services through fuels taxes, aircraft sales taxes, parts and services purchases. Airlines pay user fees. Governments have devolved their responsibilities toward the air transportation infrastructure and need to step in again as a partner. It is not right that a government by the people for the people will not help assure the continued existence of the total air transportation infrastructure which is to the benefit of its citizens.

Let us continue to monitor arguments for and applications of user fees. Let us ensure that users who can acquire the funds from outside their shareholders' bank accounts do not succeed in their attempt to convince regulators that they are paying fees in the same way private operators do. Nor should those 'paying' user fees end up 'buying' access to airspace at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

Frank Hofmann
My Blog

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Frank Hofmann
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