Airlines want business aviation to pay more for air traffic control

The Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents commercial airlines, has launched a website that breaks down the industry’s financial impact by congressional district.

The effort, performed by consulting firm Campbell-Hill Aviation Group, is part of the ATA’s lobbying push for sweeping changes — many of which will likely meet stiff resistance on Capitol Hill — in how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) manages and pays for the nation’s air traffic control system. The district-by-district breakdown is available at www.smartskies.org.

Congress is not expected to take up the bill to reauthorize the FAA Airport and Airway Trust Fund until 2007, but already stakeholders have begun to dig in for the fight. The current law expires Sept. 30 of that year, and FAA has yet to release its own bill.

The changes the ATA is calling for — switching from ground- to satellite-based radar, requiring corporations with private air fleets to pay more into the fund and giving commercial airlines more power over air traffic control — are likely to elicit some congressional opposition and lobbying pushback from the ATA’s opponents, including business-aviation groups and the trade group that represents air traffic controllers.

James May, ATA president and CEO, acknowledged during a breakfast with reporters that his group faces a hard political fight.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said, adding: “We live in a time where difficult choices need to be made.”

The ATA contends that it pays for more of the air traffic control system — its operations and capital improvements — than it “consumes.”

The money paid into the fund comes from a tax on airline tickets and a fee based in part on an aircraft’s size and weight.

A fairer system, the group says, would impose user fees based on departures and “time in the system” versus the current funding mechanism, which largely relies on ticket taxes.

The ATA approach would shift roughly $1.5 billion to $2 billion from the commercial airline industry to other users of the air traffic control system, in particular private businesses that the ATA says don’t pay their fair share.

The fund is expected to receive around $12 billion in 2007, of which commercial aviation will kick in nearly $11 billion.

Various groups oppose a shift to user fees, including the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). It commissioned a study by airline expert Darryl Jenkins, released last December. The study found “no reason to justify radical changes in the aviation-tax-and-fee system.” It said that a switch to an entirely user-fee-based system would require creation of a new bureaucracy to collect the fees.

“A lot of what [the ATA] talks about is not a good idea for a safe, reliable, redundant system we have now,” said Doug Church, a spokesman for NATCA.

Ed Bolan, the president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, said the current fee system is appropriate because the costs of the air traffic system are largely determined by the “hub and spoke” system that supports the commercial airline industry.

“Their blueprint for the future is for them to pay less money and exert more control,” Bolan said. “I don’t know that that is a particularly helpful blueprint.”

Another hard sell politically could be ATA opposition to FAA pork.

The FAA “is burdened with literally hundreds of congressional earmarks that tell them how to spend their money,” May told reporters. That leads to inefficiencies in the system, he said.

A set of principles the ATA’s board has agreed to would limit appropriators’ ability to redirect money from the trust fund to specific purposes, for example by creating a firewall between the fund and other sources of government revenue.

There is general agreement on the need for improving the current air traffic system. The ATA supports a switch from ground-based radar to a satellite radar system. Such a system would provide more precise navigation and could accommodate more air traffic, including an expected big jump in the use of so-called small jets that fly shorter distances at higher altitudes.

There are roughly 45,000 operations a day now. By 2016, when the next trust-fund reauthorization bill would expire, traffic is expected to have increased to 60,000 operations a day, which doesn’t include the small-jet traffic.

The current system is “typewriter technology in an age of Treos,” May said in reference to a brand of Web-enabled, multifunctional cell phones.

But moving from analog to digital means shutting down sections of the system to make the switch — something May also acknowledged could be still another tough sell in Congress.