Chaos in the Air: Who Pays?
Small planes may foot more of the bill for traffic control
Blue Star Jets, one of the country's largest private-jet charter companies, did about $180 million in business last year delivering the luxury life at 30,000 feet. Popular packages from Los Angeles to the Cannes Film Festival, for example, start at $125,000 round trip, not including the onboard masseuse. So perhaps it was surprising to hear Blue Star's CEO griping last week about seemingly smaller stuff: a proposed $25 per-flight fee and a possible 28-cent jump in his per-gallon fuel tax. The federal government, says Todd Rome, is "trying to starve [smaller] guys right out of the aviation industry."
That kind of rhetoric is becoming common these days, as the small- and private-plane community engages in a bruising fight with the big airlines over who should pay for drastically needed upgrades to the country's air traffic control system. Rep. Jerry Costello, head of the House Aviation Subcommittee, says a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration and improvements in air traffic control is "the most important piece of aviation legislation in years" because it will "determine the direction of aviation for years to come."
No one doubts the system is blinking red. Air traffic in the big hubs is expected to triple in the next two decades. And with an aging air traffic control system-the United States is the only developed country that hasn't upgraded from a 1950s-era analog control system to a more effective digital one-delays are expected to go from bad to worse. Last year, more than 1 in 5 flights arrived at the gate at least 15 minutes late. And passengers at the three big New York airports experienced on-time arrivals roughly 65 percent of the time.
Grim as that figure is, Russell Chew, the FAA's former top air traffic official, has estimated delays will be 62 percent higher than 2004 levels by 2014. "We're at the pivot point," says Marion Blakey, the head of the FAA, "where either we make a solid, sustainable commitment to the [upgraded] system ... or we miss that opportunity altogether-and face delays like we've never seen."
Funding debate. The proposal on the table, passed by a Senate committee last week, aims to make that commitment. Now, about half the money in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund-which pays many of the costs of air traffic control-comes from a 7.5 percent ticket tax on airlines. But that funding stream has become less dependable recently with the increased popularity of low-cost carriers. And many say it won't cover the costs of technology like satellites and GPS trackers that would comprise the upgraded system.
The White House recently proposed scrapping the ticket tax and replacing it with 200-percent higher fuel taxes, higher plane licensing fees, and a charge on even the smallest planes wanting to land at the nation's largest airports-a fee they don't pay now.
The Senate opted for a more middle-of-the-road approach: It wants the government to assess a fee of $25 per flight on commercial airliners and on the 10 percent of general aviation planes that use the air traffic system, mostly high-performance corporate jets and large turboprop planes. That money would be earmarked exclusively for the air traffic upgrades. Increasing the noncommercial jet fuel tax from 21 cents to 49 cents would also add to the FAA's general coffers.