How should US GA act in the face of airline pressures to contribute more to the cost of air traffic management systems and airports?

The USA is looking for new ways to finance its air traffic management system and airports infrastructure. Politics provides the imperative for this change, but operations could benefit if all the system users take this opportunity to shape the future of an infrastructure on which, historically, they have had preciouslittle influence.

At the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention in Orlando, Florida last week a mature, self-assured industry sector for which the future has never looked brighter was showing signs of what looked suspiciously like panic. The cause of this discomfort is the prospect of an impending transition from a tax-funded US airport/ATM system to a user-fee financed one, with the preordained death of the old system set for September 2007.

US business and general aviation has genuine cause to panic over this issue, but their proposed remedy - to launch a sustained lobbying campaign to keep the existing system - could only ever be a delaying tactic. They are facing government determination to reduce - and in the long term probably to eliminate - its aviation budget, and are facing also a docile Federal Aviation Administration that talks of public/private partnerships as inevitable. 

The GA lobby is powerful, sizeable, and has a record of success in protecting its interests. It consists not just of the NBAA, but also the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Helicopter Association International and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), to name but a few. But these organisations - by their own admission - are way behind the airlines' own representative body, the Air Transport Association, in their preparation to influence the future of the USA's aviation infrastructure. If their lobbying campaign wins them a breathing space, the time could be well spent in organising to fight a battle that will, eventually, have to be fought.

Meanwhile, the USA's significantly tax-funded airport and air transport infrastructure system is beginning to look anachronistic and increasingly difficult to justify in political terms, especially at a time of preparation for major changes and thus demand for major investment. This is true not just in the USA, but in all developed economies. Governments are gradually withdrawing from the business of funding - and therefore inevitably having the right to decide - the systems by which aviation shall be managed in the air and at airports. The FAA is preparing for the change by becoming more transparent, accountable and responsive to the industry that it is charged with both serving and regulating.

The next-generation air traffic system (NGATS) is being is being mapped out under the auspices of a joint planning and development operation. The FAA is part of that operation, but for the first time ever, industry players - particularly the system users rather than just those suppliers bidding for contracts - have also been invited to take part.

The airlines are lobbying to get a purpose-built system for their needs, but largely funded by the general aviation sector, most of which uses very little of the type of system the major carriers want. No wonder there was panic at the NBAA.

The NBAA and its fellow GA organisations must recognise the inevitability of a politically driven move to get government out of aviation. More than that, they should grasp the opportunity this represents to have a direct influence on the future of an air transport management and airport system that has previously been foisted on them by administrators, and the growth of which has traditionally been limited by Congressionally imposed budgets. The Aviation Trust Fund was never held in trust for aviation.

In the end, the GA industry must take a more aggressive part in the debate about how NGATS should be defined and funded. The US system of governance ensures that voices of reason are heard, and the GA operators have powerful arguments as to why the airline case - as it now looks - is unworkable.

Put simply, the airline argument is that user fees should be determined on a pay-by-radar-blip basis, regardless of whether the blip is an Airbus A380 headed into New York Kennedy or an Eclipse 500 headed for Wounded Knee. That proposal is so blatantly unsustainable in a balanced air transport system, let alone in a national macro-economy like that of the USA, that it is surprising the GA community should be fazed by the challenge of arguing against it.

Source: Flight International