Aviation Groups to Screen FAA Budget Looking for Signs of Possible User Fees

Aviation groups will be carefully combing President Bush's budget Monday for a preview of a much-anticipated proposal to overhaul the way the Federal Aviation Administration is funded.

While the legislative language likely will not be introduced until mid- to late February, aviation trade groups will be looking for clues that suggest the FAA will push for a new system of user fees to fund aviation spending -- a proposal many business aviation groups dislike.

The fees likely would be more closely tied to actual usage of the air traffic control system, rather than the current mix of appropriated funds, fuel taxes and passenger ticket taxes.

One aviation lobbyist said the signs in the budget will be subtle -- such as sharp declines in the "out-year" estimates of money that would be spent from the aviation trust fund and the Treasury Department. This would show that the Bush administration is anticipating less money being taken from traditional funding sources and supplementing it with something else -- likely a user fee.

"If you know what you're looking for, you'll be able to see it," the lobbyist said.

The proposal may not sit well with lawmakers, particularly those on the authorizing and appropriating committees who stand to lose power over the money.

James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has not weighed in specifically on the user-fee debate. But in the past, he has said that, in general, approaching aviation as a "cash register in the sky is not appealing."

The fee proposal has the backing of the country's major passenger airlines, which have argued that the current system, which is dependent in large part on the price of a plane ticket, saddles them with a disproportionate share of the cost and is not tied enough to actual usage of the air traffic system. They have asked for a user-fee system that would assess, among other factors, how long a plane has been aloft.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and the National Business Aviation Association are arrayed against the user-fee idea, arguing that business aviation passengers also pay ticket taxes into the system.

Phil Boyer, AOPA's president, said instituting a user-fee system would decrease federal oversight by limiting the amount of money Congress has to appropriate.

He also argued that the bureaucracy associated with setting up and administering a new user-fee system would prove not as cost-effective as the current system.

"A complicated user-fee system, with the legions of clerks, accountants and managers needed to send out, process and collect bills, could not be nearly as cost-effective," Boyer said.

The Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade group, also has proposed creating a quasi-governmental body that would have strong representation from the commercial airlines. Such a panel would decide how to spend the money, including on how to modernize air traffic control equipment.

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