A single conversation has dominated talk among the business jet set here this week for an annual meeting -- a proposal by commercial airlines to make private fliers pay user fees for the national air-traffic control system.
The National Business Aviation Association has used its three-day show, which ends today, to rally private aviation users to campaign against the plan that would increase the cost of flying by as much as $100,000 per plane each year.
"Why in the world would we want to change a structure that works so well?" asked golf legend and pilot Arnold Palmer, one of the group's most high-profile champions.
Next year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to release its plan to continue the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which pays for the agency's operations such as the radar systems and air-traffic controllers who police the skies.
Commercial airlines and private fliers support the fund through taxes, with the airlines passing the cost along to passengers with a fee on each ticket. The Air Transport Association, the lobby group that represents commercial carriers, says its own share plus the current fuel taxes that private jet owners pay will not be enough to maintain the trust fund and afford needed technology upgrades.
"We have an air-traffic control system that is in crisis," said ATA President James May. "We have an aging system that was originally designed and built back in the '40s that's been stressed to its limits."
May said the average number of flights per day is expected to jump from 42,000 this year to 62,000 in the next decade.
Much of that growth is projected to come from business aircraft, which have soared in number since 9-11 when security and scheduling hassles turned many CEOs away from commercial flights and toward private jets.
"We don't need to subsidize corporate fat cats zooming around the country in these planes at the expense of customers of the airline industry," May said.
Officials of NBAA, whose board members include executives from PepsiCo, Exxon Mobil, Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Target Corp., say the user-fee proposal is not about making business fliers pay their fair share. It's about commercial airlines wanting to pay less while they gain more control of the air-traffic system, they said.
"The airlines have put a bull's-eye right in the middle of the back of NBAA," said Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association. "Do we pay our fair share? Absolutely."
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has not said how user fees, if any, will be included in the agency's budget proposal next year, but the agency has indicated it may accept the idea in the past. On Tuesday, Blakey addressed NBAA's opening session and called for big funding changes.
"We need a stable, cost-based revenue stream," she said. "The changing face of aviation brings with it the need to modernize, and we can't do that without fundamental reforms of the current financing system."
NBAA President Ed Bolen has called on the group's members to reach out to Congress, which ultimately must approve the FAA's plan.
He even solicited the help of pundit duo James Carville, a longtime Democratic strategist, and wife Mary Matalin, a GOP adviser, to clue members into the political landscape heading into next month's midterm Congressional elections.
"The airlines are coming after you," Carville told the group. "You've got to get involved in your association."
Bob Showalter, chairman of Showalter Flying Services Inc. at Orlando Executive Airport, said user fees would likely cause a dramatic dip in business for operators such as his business because the cost of flying could rise substantially.
Business aviation advocates said the proposal is, in part, an effort to put them out of business as they've grown to become competitors to commercial airlines.
May, president of the airline lobby, discounted the notion that commercial carriers are threatened by business aviation and that business flights would decrease with the addition of user fees. He said the average increased cost per flight is estimated at less than $500.
"I somehow don't think the CEO of Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch or Arnold Palmer cannot afford to pay a $400 fee for the use of a system that is modern and safe and enables them to go when and where they please," he said.
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