White House Ratchets Up Heat on User Fees

Remember that online petition asking the White House to abandon its $100 per flight user fee proposal? More than 9,000 of you signed it, prompting the government to consider the issue and write a response. Authored by Dana Hyde, a Washington bureaucrat with the bureaucratic-sounding job title Associate Director for General Government Programs for the Office of Management and Budget, the official White House rejoinder, made public last week, is called: "Why We Need Aviation User Fees."

Oh, brother.

Just when it appeared the Obama Administration had backed off of its misguided plan to start charging owners of turbine-powered airplanes operating on IFR flight plans $100 per flight, we instead receive an official White House document spelling out why we “need” aviation user fees.

The reasons why we most certainly do not need user fees have been properly stated time and again by aviation advocates in the last several months, and so there's no point rehashing that argument here. Instead, let's take a closer look at the White House counter-argument to see if it holds water.

First, we all know that Washington bureaucrats and politicians rarely call anything that could draw political flak by its proper name. That’s why spending increases that are smaller this year than they were last year are referred to as “cuts.” And when a president talks about “investments” for the future, what he really means is more spending. The term “aviation user fee” is the industry's term. The White House has never used that phrase, preferring instead to tell us in eloquent Washington-speak that corporate jet owners must “pay their fair share.”

But in her missive, Ms. Hyde writes “aviation user fees” – right in the title, no less. This might be construed as refreshing candor – except that it isn’t. My guess is Dana Hyde chose the starightforward title for her response because she doesn’t really care very much about this issue. In all likelihood, a superior dropped this assignment in her lap after the petition received more than the 5,000 signatures triggering a response (which, by the way, has since been bumped to 25,000). Hyde probably felt that typing up a response to an online petition signed by a bunch of pilots was well beneath her. So what to do? Dash off a memo in about the time it takes to gulp down a cup of coffee, and get on with other “important” matters.

Otherwise, how do you explain the failure of logic and, worse, mathematical error in the response? Stating the White House case that private aircraft must pay an "equitable" share for ATC services, Hyde writes: “For example, under current law, a large commercial aircraft flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco pays between twenty-one and thirty-three times the fuel taxes paid by a corporate jet flying the same route and using the same FAA air traffic services.”

You don’t even have to reach for a calculator to see the error in this assertion. A corporate jet pays 21.9 cents per gallon in fuel taxes, while the airliner pays just 4.4 cents a gallon. No matter how you crunch the numbers, the corporate jet will almost always end up paying more in fuel taxes than the airliner, and certainly not 21 to 33 times as much. Ms. Hyde never mentions passenger ticket taxes, only fuel taxes. Hence, there is a fundamental flaw in her shoddily crafted response. I chalk it up to sloppiness, begot by the fact that Ms. Hyde probably afforded very little of her time to this assignment.

But let’s continue with our dissection of the Hyde memo. In it she also writes: “In a challenging budget environment, the Obama Administration believes it’s essential that those who benefit from our world-class aviation system help pay for its ongoing operation.” We do too – that’s what the aviation fuel tax is for.

Next she writes: “All piston aircraft, military aircraft, public aircraft, air ambulances, aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace, and Canada-to-Canada flights would be exempted.” Can the White House guarantee this will always remain the case, I wonder? And what exactly is “controlled airspace,” in the White House’s view?

Then we have this final gem: “We appreciate your petition's acknowledgment that there needs to be an increased user contribution to aviation system funding in the current fiscal climate, and we recognize that some would prefer to raise the tax rate on aviation fuel. At the same time, we have concluded that a $100 per flight user fee is an equitable way for those who benefit to bear the cost of this essential service.”

This one should make us all want to tear our hair out. But you at least have to hand it to Ms. Hyde: It’s pure Wasington-speak at its Inside-the-Beltway finest. It says absolutely nothing, and it gets its point across perfectly.

She may as well have written: “We hear what you’re saying, and we’re still not listening.”

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