Needed: An uplifting U.S. national aviation policy

A recent example: On August 13, the keynote luncheon speaker at the monthly meeting of the Aero Club of Washington was George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic. Whitesides noted that this was his first “policy” speech in Washington on behalf of Virgin Galactic, the U.S. space tourism company founded and funded by British entrepreneur and billionaire Richard Branson.

Whitesides’ presentation, including an exciting video of Virgin Galactic’s developmental flights of its suborbital spaceplane, was riveting. But some of us who work in the lower reaches of Earth’s atmosphere couldn’t help but draw contrasts between the rarefied environment in which Virgin Atlantic already is operating and the obstacles we in the airline industry slog through like a winter takeoff in deep slush.

For the moment, at least, Virgin Galactic’s flight operations are designed to stay within restricted airspace over the Mojave Desert, where the company enjoys “ground to God” unfettered access to the sky and beyond. Eventually, Virgin Galactic operations will shift to Spaceport America, a special facility being built in the southern New Mexico desert.

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Whitesides said his company is working with the FAA’s Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center to develop special ATC procedures for SS2 flights. Contrast that with what is happening with respect to our ever more constrained U.S. national airspace system and the political delay of our increasingly needed NextGen, the ambitious but overdue modernization of our air traffic control, airspace, and overall air transportation system.

Though progress has been made on this vitally important infrastructure overhaul, obtaining an adequate, consistent, multi-year funding stream for NextGen has been an ongoing and uphill battle for years. But the struggle to build NextGen—on time, on budget, and in the correct ways—is only one aspect of the costs to our nation of not having a coherent national aviation policy that supports and promotes all aspects of the U.S. aviation industry, including the airline industry that knits our nation together and bridges oceans, continents, and cultures.

For example, let’s look at the cost breakdown of an average U.S. domestic airline ticket: Twenty percent of the total ticket price consists of federal government taxes and fees—higher than the so-called sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco! If Virgin Galactic’s passengers were levied at the same rate, they’d have to pay a whopping $62,500 in federal government taxes and fees on top of the $250,000 base ticket price.

Whitesides’ policy message, delivered with Dr. George Nield, who is the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at the head table, was, to paraphrase, “Please don’t overregulate this new industry.” That’s what U.S. airline employees would like for our industry—by contrast with space tourism, eight decades mature but struggling under excessive taxes and fees.

Virgin Galactic isn’t likely yet dealing with DHS, TSA, DOJ, the State Department, Customs and Border Patrol, and several other U.S. government agencies that dictate how airlines operate. Rather than hoping that Virgin Galactic and other commercial space ventures become weighed down by the same taxes, fees, and other regulatory burdens that beset the U.S. airline industry, we would hope that our government would finally see the light and lift some of the weight from our wings.

Like SS2 and its air-breathing launch aircraft, airlines must overcome gravity on every flight. They shouldn’t have to also fight the downward pull of their own government.

We need government policy that supports a level playing field for U.S. airlines so that they can compete in the international marketplace and continue to provide safe, affordable air transportation. Then the U.S. airline industry could really take off, benefitting passengers, shippers, employees, and the U.S. economy. 

Moak is president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int'l.