Paying for a Modernized Air Traffic System

Sen. Jay Rockefeller talked about putting funding for the NextGen air traffic control system into the stimulus bill. Instead, he should resurrect his 2007 proposal for a user-pays approach to jump-starting NextGen.

NextGen is the much-needed complete replacement of our obsolete air traffic control system with one based on GPS signals, digital communications, and automation of a lot of routine stuff. The price tag over the next 20 years is estimated at about $40 billion in today’s dollars, half of which would be FAA equipment and facility costs and the other half the estimated cost of aircraft owners getting all the needed gear installed on their planes.

In the committee’s draft FAA reauthorization bill in 2007, Rockefeller proposed adding a $25 per flight ATC modernization fee to each flight made by a jet-powered or turboprop plane. Such planes make up the vast majority of those flying in controlled airspace—the ones that file flight plans and use the services of radars and controllers. That fee would not affect the 165,000 small piston-powered planes owned by individuals, much of whose flying is done without flight plans in uncontrolled airspace. That $25/flight modernization fee would provide a dedicated revenue source for $5 billion worth of NextGen revenue bonds. And the very modest cost—adding about 1% to the cost of a business jet or turboprop flight—would be borne by those who would benefit the most from NextGen.

Rather than soaking future taxpayers, Congress should return to the very sound principle of user-pays.