Fight Brewing over FAA's Funding

The bill, which is yet to be introduced, would shift some of the burden for funding the FAA from commercial airline passengers to private plane and jet operators.

Mar. 4 -- Battle lines are forming between airline passengers and private plane operators over who should pay for the nation's air traffic control system.

The battlefield is an upcoming bill in Congress to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency that operates on about $14 billion annually.

The bill, which is yet to be introduced, would shift some of the burden for funding the FAA from commercial airline passengers to private plane and jet operators.

Airlines support the change because it would eliminate a 7.5 percent ticket tax passengers pay and, if air traffic control improvements result, reduce delays and cancellations.

"What we are doing is trying to build a new air traffic control system that can handle the loads," said David Stempler, President of the Air Travelers Association.

"A city like Las Vegas that is very dependent on air transportation ... would be really affected," he said.

Airline flights are responsible for about 73 percent of the cost of operating the nation's air traffic control system, according to the FAA.

But under the current system ticket taxes from airline passengers account for 95 percent of the FAA's trust fund, a pool of money that represents $11 billion, or nearly 80 percent of the FAA's annual funding.

"We are overpaying," said Stempler, whose organization represents airline passengers. "The people in the corporate jets, the charter jets ... they are not paying their fair share."

For example, a Boeing 737 like the kind Southwest Airlines would fly into McCarran International Airport might use the same amount of air traffic control resources as a Cirrus SR22. But the 737 contributes a ticket tax from as many as 137 passengers on board.

The Cirrus, with four or fewer people, contributes only through fuel taxes.

General aviation, which the FAA says is responsible for about 16 percent of the cost, pays just 3 percent. Under the new system, general aviation's share of the bill would increase to 11 percent, according to the FAA.

Locally, about 402,000 commercial flights use the airspace of McCarran International Airport annually, carrying about 42 million passengers. In 2006 there were about 64,000 general aviation flights at McCarran, 197,000 at the North Las Vegas Airport and 58,000 at Henderson Executive Airport.

Independent pilots, air charter services and private jet users vehemently oppose the change because lost ticket tax revenue would be replaced by a near tripling of the fuel tax for general aviation craft. There would also be user fees for commercial airliners.

The private operators purchased nearly 29 million gallons of the most common jet fuel in 2006 at the three airports, meaning the new tax would have added about $13.8 million to fuel costs.

"If we thought we could raise prices, we probably already would have," said John Sullivan, CEO of Las Vegas-based Sundance Helicopters, a longtime Grand Canyon air tour operator.

"In the marketplace of things to do in Las Vegas, at some point we are just priced out of that market."

General aviation now pays a tax of 21.8 cents per gallon of jet fuel and 19.3 cents for aviation gasoline. Under the FAA's proposed budget, general aviation would pay 70 cents per gallon on both.

The tax commercial airlines pay for fuel would increase from 4.3 cents to 13.6 per gallon.

It also would allow airports to increase passenger facility charges to as much as $6. The charge at McCarran is now $3. It raised nearly $86 million in 2006, money that goes toward projects like runway and taxiway improvements.

"We find nothing in there that we would truly oppose," said Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of the Clark County Department of Aviation.

People affiliated with general aviation, business and corporate travel and charters say they are especially worried because the amount of some fees hasn't been set.

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