User Fees: Be Very Afraid

>>>The MFD of the future?

(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.

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.

I know that this sounds like a slippery slope argument, and that’s because it is. Sometimes, you see, slippery slopes really are slippery slopes.

A Cockpit of One's Own
As you might be aware, I'm a big fan of sharing airplanes, not because of any underlying philosophical problem with whole ownership but because it seems to me that, given the economic realities of the times we live in, sharing the costs associated with owning an airplane makes a lot of sense. It lets people either get into airplane ownership, period, or it lets them own a lot more airplane than they otherwise would have been able to afford.

For years I’ve been flying shared airplanes, first with a terrific flying club, Three Wing, out of Sikorsky Memorial (KBDR) in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then with AirShares, a shared ownership operation based in Atlanta with locations around the country, including in White Plains, New York, (KHPN) where I had my share. After my move to Texas in 2004, I was a partner in an airplane, a great Cherokee Six, before moving back to shared ownership with PlaneSmart, another shared ownership company that, like AirShares, is growing, with sites around the South, including in Austin (KAUS), where I had my share.

The shared ownership concept is great. For a fraction of the cost of the airplane, you get a share, usually between 75 and 150 hours a year, and the company takes care of the airplane for you. You pretty much stay proficient and show up and fly when you want. Well, when the airplane is available, that is. While the availability of the shared airplanes with all of my experiences was very good overall, there were limits to how long I could keep it at any one time and how many total days per year I could keep the airplane parked away from home.

No matter how you look at it, there's no denying that it's not really your airplane, at least not all of it. I'd occasionally take the Cirrus for a week or eight days, and with the PA-32, it was an even more flexible arrangement. But when it came right down to it, there was always somebody waiting for the airplane back at home. So if I ever felt like staying an extra day or two with the family in southern Utah, or taking a side trip on the way home from south Florida to stop and see friends in Nashville, Tennessee, well, it just wasn't an option. The airplane had to get back.

When it’s your airplane and your airplane alone, that isn’t a consideration. Even if you don’t get to or don’t want to stay a couple of extra days, it’s a really nice thing to know you could if you wanted to.

When it comes to flying for business, as I do a lot, whole ownership offers the kind of flexibility that sharing an airplane doesn’t. You can leave at a moment’s notice, stay on the road for as long as you need to, and then jump right back in it a few days later and go somewhere else. It takes the edge that flying a business aircraft gives you to begin with and sharpens it.

While I remain a proponent of the shared ownership model and a fan of the two largest light-airplane companies, I think I finally get why their growth has been a great deal slower than I for years predicted it would be. The secret couldn’t be any simpler. People just like having an airplane they can call their own.

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