Flight-Surcharge Fight Could Play Out as Panel Marks Up Aviation Reauthorization

May 16, 2007
At the center of the debate: a $25 per flight surcharge

The fight between commercial airlines and general aviation over funding air traffic control improvements may play out Wednesday when a Senate committee marks up a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill.

The airlines and commercial aviation interests are at odds over a provision in the bill (S 1300) that would set a $25-per-flight surcharge for flights in the national airspace. Turboprops outside controlled airspace and piston-powered planes would be exempt.

Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and John E. Sununu, R-N.H., are expected to offer an amendment during the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee markup that would strike the surcharge.

General aviation interests say the current system of excise and ticket taxes works fine and that proposed user fees amount to corporate welfare for airlines. Commercial airlines oppose eliminating the $25 surcharge, arguing that the status quo saddles them with an unfair share of air traffic control costs.

"The proposed elimination of the $25 fee undermines the critical importance of transitioning to a funding mechanism that fairly charges all system users for the air traffic control services they consume," said James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, the industry's main lobbying group.

Trade groups for many segments of the general aviation industry -- including the National Business Aviation Association, which represents businesses that operate their own planes, and the National Air Transportation Association -- are backing the amendment.

Ed Bolen, National Business Aviation Association president and chief executive, called the surcharge a "regressive and administratively burdensome user fee, which would be very harmful to the small businesses and rural communities that rely on general aviation."

Financing the transition to a modern, satellite-based air traffic control system to handle predicted increases in air traffic is a major sticking point in the debate about reauthorizing the FAA through fiscal 2011. The agency's current authorization (PL 108-176) expires at the end of September.

The FAA has proposed a wholesale overhaul of the current financing scheme, tying payments more closely to actual use. The administration-backed bill (HR 1356) would eliminate the tax on the price of a plane ticket and replace it with a fee levied on airlines based largely on a plane's size. The idea is that a plane makes the same demands on the air traffic control system regardless of how many ticket-paying passengers are on board.

The administration's plan also would reduce jet fuel taxes for commercial airlines by almost half, to 13 cents a gallon, while almost tripling the fuel tax on general aviation, to 70 cents per gallon.

It has received a lukewarm reception so far in Congress.

The committee will mark up S 1300 at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in 253 Russell.

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