Before we go any further with this plan, everyone involved should check out a couple of Wikipedia pages. I’d suggest they first read about the midair over San Diego in 1978, when a PSA Boeing 727 collided with a Cessna 172, causing both airplanes to crash and killing all the occupants on both and seven people on the ground. A total of 144 people lost their lives. When they’re done reading that one, they might want to click on the wiki for the Cerritos, California, midair collision between a Piper Archer and an AeroMexico DC-9 that occurred in 1986. The collision killed 82 in all, including all of the occupants of both airplanes and 15 people on the ground. The Archer did not have an operating Mode C transponder, which was legal at the time. After Cerritos, it was hard to argue that the cost of a Mode C transponder was onerous. The risks of airplanes flying around busy terminal areas without them were just too great. But this is the direction in which the new rules would be taking us, back to an uncertain future.
There are basic fairness issues as well. Because most business flights are short, and because they often make multiple stops on the same trip, the fee amounts to a lopsided levy on smaller businesses operating smaller aircraft. Turboprop singles and twins would be especially hard hit.
Not to mention the fact that the whole turbine versus nonturbine dividing line is flawed. A 25,000-pound DC-3 flying a dozen freight runs a week from a busy urban hub wouldn’t have to pay a penny for ATC services while the owner of a 6,000-pound Eclipse jet would have to write a check every time the pilot keyed the mic to talk to the tower. If you don’t think that would have a chilling effect on small business, think again.
Nor does the administration seem to understand that the 737 flying across the country with 130 people aboard is having the costs shared by 130 people, whereas a King Air would have just a few people on board. Ticket taxes make sense. Why should the operators of larger airplanes pay less per passenger than the operators of smaller airplanes? The creators of this scheme might argue that ATC talks to only one airplane and not to each of the people on board, that it’s the service offered that matters. If so, then it makes no sense to exclude piston airplanes from the plan. Either we’re paying for ATC services or we’re not.
Which underscores the beauty of the fuel tax. It’s simple and it’s scalable. Smaller airplanes carrying fewer people pay less, but they pay something, which they should. Larger ones going faster and farther pay more. It’s also democratic. We all pay for ATC services every time we buy fuel.
At heart the whole scheme rests on the premise that the users of a system should be the ones to pay for the upkeep of that system. I’d absolutely agree with that point, if the term user were defined accurately. The users of the National Airspace System are every man, woman and child in the country, all of those who ever set foot on an airliner, all of those who get next-day packages from loved ones on the other side of the country, all of those who depend on the system for our national defense. We all benefit tremendously from the system, and we should all contribute.
Those of us flying piston-powered airplanes might feel safe in knowing that it’s only the business operators who would have to pay for ATC services, but that’s not the way it would work. As soon as user fees are established as common practice, they will expand faster than your cable bill. Before long we will all be paying for the privilege of flying in controlled airspace, for filing flight plans, for shooting an approach — would the missed approach cost extra? We need to all speak up to stop user fees, period, because if we don’t, they will become user fees for all of us.