The major airlines’ long-running fight for a new FAA funding system continues to run. The carriers are stepping up their fight as the deadline nears for the expiration of the present system of ticket taxes and passenger fees – which expire with end of the government’s fiscal year at the end of September. They’re pushing for a new scheme in which they would pay the Federal Aviation Administration for air-traffic services on a mileage basis that, they say, accurately recognises the FAA’s real cost of providing traffic control service. The FAA itself says it wants and needs a cost-based system and is working with the airlines on this is the largest overhaul of the charging systems since the 1970s. If the existing system is not replaced or renewed by the next fiscal year, the FAA could face a find its airways trust fund accounts empty within two months, says the FAA’s chief, Marion Blakey. But new fees and taxes can’t be imposed without a nod from some powerful people on Capitol Hill including the all-powerful House Ways and Means committee, the tax-writing panel, and its counterpart, the Senate Finance Committee. These panels are composed of members of Congress who don’t get elected by raising taxes of any kind. The members who decide these vital things are the people who’ve been on the Hill the longest.
So the airlines’ hopes to get something done now rest on two senior senators from states that don’t have any big airports – West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat (left), and Mississippi’s Republican Trent Lott (right). Rural states like West Virginia and Mississippi tend to keep sending the same legislators back to Congress; West Virginia for instance has kept one senator, Robert Byrd, in Washington since 1958. This helps them develop the kind of clout they need to compete for federal funds with big-population states like New York or Florida. Seniority has placed Rockefeller, elected in 1984, in charge of the Senate aviation subcommittee, and made Lott the subcommittee’s senior Republican. And both senators are also on the tax-writing Finance Committee, along with Democratic members from the vast open states of Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Arkansas.
To win rural allies like these, the airlines have made a modification to their “simple proposal”: exempt flights of less than 250 miles from the proposed distance fees. Delta Air Lines’ chief operating officer, Jim Whitehurst, explains that this is intended to protect air service to small and rural communities as a matter of basic fairness. Delta, he says, is behind the change because it has more flights to small communities than any other major carrier. It’s got nothing to do with politics. Air Transport Association chief Jim May says that his hopes for getting the airline plan through Congress rest on “the two firmest allies and best hopes we have, Rockefeller and Lott”.