(November 2011) I remember from my college classes about slippery slope arguments, the idea being that they unfairly presume that one undesirable outcome of a new policy invariably would lead to another even more undesirable outcome, which would then lead to even worse ones until the momentum was unstoppable and all hell would break loose. Even though I knew that slippery slope arguments were supposed to be fallacious — not every little problem cascades into disaster — they still scared the daylights out of me. Maybe that was because I was a beginning skier at the time. Once I got up a head of steam on the slopes, look out below.
Which brings us to user fees.
Recently the Obama administration proposed a plan to impose a $100 per flight fee on business aircraft operators, which it has defined as those operating turbine equipment. There are exceptions for law enforcement and medical flights and the like, but for most of us who operate turbine equipment, it’ll cost a hundred bucks a pop to play.
There is one big exception, however: flights that don’t use ATC services.
The problem is that, all of a sudden, there’s a big incentive for pilots not to talk to ATC, because if they do, it’ll cost them a C-note. So, pilots will skirt around the edges of special use airspace instead of communicating with the controllers, which ratchets up the risk not only for the pilots who don’t call but for everybody else in the airspace as well.
That might not be the safest approach, but it’s perfectly legal. Then again, how many pilots will go further than that and bust the regulations altogether to save the fee? How many will pop up through a layer instead of getting a quickie clearance, or fly a few miles of virtual VFR through the muck? Or any one of a number of other potentially disastrous shortcuts to save a few bucks? As much as I’d like to think it wouldn’t happen, I know human nature well enough to know that, when people are incentivized to do the wrong thing, some of them will certainly do it.
Even if these people aren’t breaking the rules, a fee-for-service approach will reward operators for not participating in ATC, which is the opposite of what we want. Operators in busy air traffic environments, the ones we most want to be communicating with ATC, are the least likely to do so if it’s costing them for the privilege. This is especially true for operators who fly a lot of legs. The increase in aircraft with whom ATC is not communicating can’t help but increase the chances of a midair collision between an airplane talking with ATC and one not talking with ATC.