Aviation groups take different routes to reauthorization

Central issue is whether to restructure how much each aviation sector pays the federal government.

Aviation trade groups are jockeying for position heading into next year's congressional debate over reauthorizing the financing mechanism for aviation programs for the first time in a decade.

Excise taxes that make up a large portion of the Federal Aviation Administration's financing are set to expire at the end of September 2007. One of the main issues is whether to restructure how much each aviation sector pays into federal coffers, which pits major airlines against corporate and private air passengers and aviation unions.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines, the National Business Aviation Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have been lobbying members on transportation, finance and tax-writing panels.

Airlines want Congress to replace the combination of commercial fuel and passenger taxes with a fee based on the use of the air traffic control system. They say the existing system results in airlines contributing at least 90 percent of the trust fund money though they are responsible for about two-thirds use of the system.

Others contend that noncommercial aviation users pay higher fuel taxes and many use smaller airports with less expensive infrastructure than major airlines. "All airplanes are not the same, all airplanes do not impose the same costs on the system," said Edward Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents about 7,000 companies.

Airline opponents also say user fees would discourage private pilots from using weather and other safety services or from flying altogether. "It would raise the cost on general aviation users to the point that it would kill our industry," said Andy Cebula, executive vice president for governmental affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

AOPA, which represents 408,000 private owners and operators of small airplanes, has hired former Transportation Department Inspector General Ken Mead to lobby and has sent questionnaires to congressional candidates this fall asking whether they support retaining the system of using fuel taxes and commercial passenger taxes to largely finance the federal aviation trust fund.

The funding issue has riven the aviation industry. "It's maybe the biggest issue that we have ever had to face," Bolen said. The National Business Aviation Association this year hired Mitch Rose, an influential lobbyist and a former chief of staff for Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and aide to House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, before leaving for the private sector in 2000.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has expressed concern about the solvency of the trust fund and raised the possibility of an overhaul. "We need a stable, cost-based revenue stream. The changing face of aviation brings with it the need to modernize, and we can't do that without fundamental reforms of the current financing system," she told the National Business Aviation Association last Tuesday.

An FAA financing proposal is being internally reviewed and probably will be released in January or February, an FAA spokeswoman said. Foes of the overhaul say the trust fund is solvent, and there will be enough money generated through the current system to pay for a plan to to replace ground-based radars with satellite navigation, implement an integrated weather system and revamp security.