Letter from America: I don’t want to be like New Zealand…

01 March 2016 / by the GAA team / Costs, Employment, Governance, Opinion

This is from Paul Bertorelli’s Avweb.com site based in Florida…

Paul Bertorelli: User fees are a measure of cowardice to tax the few onerously, instead of the many appropriately

Paul Bertorelli: User fees are a measure of cowardice to tax the few onerously, instead of the many appropriately

The other day, I was floating along in the Cub listening to the radio chatter when it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard a native English speaker for several minutes. I listened for several more and determined that, sure enough, there were no native English speakers on the frequency. Judging by the accents, there were Indians, Germans or Italians and at least one Chinese, but no American English speakers.

I’m not about to launch off on a nativist tear here, but quite the opposite. There’s a reason for all these foreign accents here in the skies over Florida. It’s because the US remains the preferred place for students from all over the world to learn to fly. And the reasons for that are several. One is that gas is cheaper and despite our incessant whining about the FAA, the regulatory burden in the US is less onerous than about anywhere else.

Jollying it all along is the fact that in the US, we’ve built the best, most accessible aviation infrastructure in the known universe and that is why there are more airplanes, more pilots and more airports in the US than anywhere. In an age not that long ago, we had things like the Civil Works Administration that scattered airports all over the country, many of which are still used by those very same students I was listening to on the radio. Yet today, we carry on that government-provided infrastructure through the FAA’s AIP programme, funded as it is by taxes. The ATC system is similarly taxpayer-supported.

The good news is for at least this week, that system remains intact, now that the House has shelved a proposal that would have, among others things, removed ATC from FAA control and funded it through user fees. It may be a temporary reprieve, but it’s a reprieve nonetheless and I’ll take it. I’ve said in the past that I’m not philosophically or ideologically opposed to user fees, but I think given this country’s history as the world leader in accessible aviation infrastructure, user-fee supported ATC is just all wrong. I’ve heard – and written about – user fee successes in Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere, but among developed countries, the US ranks number one in per capita access to airports. (For the record, 40 small island nations rank ahead of the US, but they are merely small populations clustered around a runway. In more than a few cases, the runway was built by US dollars.)

In a political season marked by discussion about the health care system in Denmark and Norway, I suddenly realise I don’t want to be like Denmark and Norway, nor do I want to be like Canada or New Zealand when it comes to aviation fees and to hell with the Reason Foundation. We built this nice system that people from around the work flock to for a reason and, at least for the moment, we’ve decided not to screw it up. Bully for us.

What’s changed from the days when the US had the will to build the best air transportation is basically political and bureaucratic. The Congress lacks the political will and ability to fund the FAA on a predictable basis even though there’s no doubt that the tax and funding base exists to do this. User fees, at least in this context, are nothing but a measure of cowardice to excise tax the few onerously instead of the many appropriately. Toll roads sprouting up everywhere are another example of this.

For me, the math has always been inarguable. Collectively, GA user fees will never generate enough revenue to normalise the FAA’s funding stream, but they’ll be, in principle at least, so penalising as to significantly harm an industry that’s already struggling for survival, causing more exits and lower revenue. It’s the perfect lose-lose.

Unfortunately, the heaved sigh of relief is but the briefest respite. The quest for user fees will never die. But at least for the time being, we can forget about it. A cheery thought for the weekend. Meanwhile, the Pilots Bill of Rights Two with medical relief remains in play. The just-killed House reauthorisation bill had PBOR2 language and that died with it. But the Senate bill is still viable. Keep your fingers crossed.

♦ Paul Bertorelli is editor of The Aviation Consumer and AVweb.com. He is also the deputy editorial director of Belvoir Publications, which publishes Aviation Safety. He was formerly the editor of IFR. Paul’s an ATP-CFII-MEI. The website is well worth visiting.