President Obama Should Stick to Guns on User Fees for Business Jets

Private plane trade association AOPA flipped out over the proposed air traffic control user fees in President Obama’s budget for the FAA over the next 10 years. While the budget language provided no details, the move reflects the long-standing support of OMB, FAA, and numerous aviation researchers for replacing most or all of the current aviation excise taxes (ticket tax on airline passenger tickets and fuel tax on private planes) with fees that reflect the cost and value of the services provided to aviation. The current taxes are the funding source for the Aviation Trust Fund, out of which Congress appropriates funds for a $3 billion per year airports grant program and most of the capital and operating budget of the FAA’s air traffic control (ATC) system.

It costs the ATC system just as much to safely route a Gulfstream business jet from City A to City B as it costs to route a 767 airliner. Yet the bizjet pays only a tiny fraction of that cost via its fuel tax, whereas every serious study shows that airline passengers pay well over the cost of guiding the 767. Nearly every other civilized country pays for ATC via direct user charges, and bizjets are thriving in Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia despite user charges (which still amount to only a few percent of the total cost of owning and operating a bizjet).

But the name of the game is for the well-heeled bizjet community (represented by NBAA) to hide beneath the skirts of the vastly larger (and much less affluent) private plane community (represented by AOPA). Nobody is proposing user fees for individuals’ piston planes, but AOPA has learned over the years that raising this specter is a great fund-raising and membership-renewal tool. And NBAA is only too happy to go along, hoping nobody notices the very different nature of flying done by the two different groups subsumed under the fuzzy term “general aviation.”

I hope the new administration sticks to its guns on this issue.