Airlines and the general aviation community should stop bickering and join forces to achieve the airspace improvements the USA needs

There is a war brewing in the USA between the air transport and general aviation industries, and it is over who uses and who pays for the national airspace system. The Federal Aviation Administration is warning its current funding stream is not enough to pay for operating and modernising the system. The financially struggling airlines, which pay the bulk of the FAA’s bills through ticket taxes and other fees, want to shift the burden to general aviation, arguing that they are subsidising the operators of smaller aircraft, which pay into the FAA’s trust fund through fuel taxes. General aviation says it pays its fair share through the current system, and while low-cost carriers are pushing the tax paid per ticket down, strong growth in business aviation is driving revenues from fuel taxes up.

This perfect storm is swirling for now around the emerging market for very-light jets (VLJ). This new category of product provides the performance of a business jet at the price of a private aircraft, and promises to appeal to a wide range of customers, ranging from owner-fliers to corporate flight departments and including the eagerly anticipated but as-yet unproved air-taxi market. The commercial air transport industry has seized on the hype generated by the VLJ manufacturers themselves, and forecasts of thousands of deliveries within a decade, to paint a doom-laden picture of airliners fighting their way through skies blackened with small jets flown by inexperienced pilots.

In truth, the major VLJ manufacturers are developing training programmes modelled on those of the major airlines themselves, and they go beyond that provided for commercial pilots in providing skills assessment before training begins and mentoring after it is completed. The argument is less about safety and more about money.

No one disagrees that VLJs, if they are as successful as their manufacturers hope, will increase the burden on the airspace system. Nor do they disagree that, unless it is modernised, the airspace system will not be able to cope with the extra demand. Even without a single VLJ being delivered, the system will not cope with expected air traffic growth. What they cannot agree is an equitable formula that ensures all users, big or small, pay their share of the cost of using the airspace system. If they could, then VLJs would be seen as a good thing, because they would bring money into the system as they open up new opportunities for air travel.

The barrier to agreeing a formula is not the financial troubles of the airlines or the safety strategies of the VLJ manufacturers, it is the FAA’s inability to say how much it costs to provide air traffic control services, and how much more it will cost to modernise the creaking airspace system. Instead of attacking VLJs, the airlines should be lending their considerable weight to that task. Then war might be averted.

Source: Flight International