As Julius Ceasar found out, March is not a good month for knives to be out. And the sound of blades being unsheathed echoed across Washington DC last week in preparation for the backstabbing and bloodletting of Congressional hearings into a new way to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

After years of working together to build the consensus that the creaking US airspace system needs modernising, and of speaking with one voice when lobbying Congress for the funds to do it, when it comes to deciding who will pay, and how, the opposing sides have reverted to type and retreated to their corners to await the bloodbath.

Today, airspace users pay for the FAA through a combination of airline ticket taxes and fuel taxes, topped up each year by Congress with money drawn from the government’s general tax account. But the FAA says this revenue stream is not sufficient, nor stable enough, to pay for both operating and modernising the airspace system.

Now airlines have turned on their erstwhile allies in general aviation and look set to propose a single fee for every turbine flight within the US instrument flight rules (IFR) system, regardless of aircraft size. The GA community has united in opposition to user fees and wants to continue paying through fuel taxes.

Both sides talk of a battle, and it promises to be bloody. The danger is that the US public’s understanding of aviation – and its standing with the public – will be damaged by the war of words. The message that the airspace system desperately needs to be modernised to cope with expected growth could be lost, and with it the industry’s ability to work together to achieve that goal.

At first glance, it looks like an uneven fight between the vibrant and financially healthy GA industry and the lumbering and financially weakened airlines. But an animal is at its most dangerous when wounded, and the airlines still pack tremendous political clout. They are also trying to divide the GA community and conquer its opposition by proposing that private visual flight rules (VFR) users continue to pay fuel taxes.

GA will try to portray the airlines as the architects of the looming airspace capacity crisis, accusing them of ruinous mismanagement, suicidal competitiveness and insane scheduling that funnels hundreds of flights through a few hub airports for brief periods each day, placing huge stresses on the system. It will say that system was designed and is operated for the airlines, and that GA imposes only an incremental additional burden.

In retaliation, the airlines are expected to portray business aviation as wealthy fat cats flying family and friends to resorts – an image the sector has had to work hard to shake off. They will argue that a business jet places the same burden on FAA services as an airliner, and that the expected explosion in very light jets (VLJ) will push the system into gridlock.

GA is expected to portray itself instead as a saviour of the system, able to relieve congestion and delays by flying between smaller airports. There is no correspondence between the top 20 airline and top 20 GA airports, they will point out. And while Fortune 500 operators of large corporate jets perhaps could pay more, GA will argue they make up only a fraction of US business aviation.

VLJ air taxis will not blacken the skies, GA will say, but provide an alternative to increasingly inconvenient airline travel and connections between communities that have lost air service as the struggling airlines have concentrated on more profitable routes. And more GA flying will mean more fuel taxes – a direct measure of airspace usage that GA will argue is more efficient than user fees.

That the airlines could succeed in driving a wedge between the private VFR community, with its lobbying power in sheer taxpayer numbers, and the financially powerful but politically cautious corporate IFR constituency is the biggest risk GA faces. So far, the industry has stayed united because it fears where user fees could lead and because it believes GA safety will suffer if there is a financial disincentive to fly IFR.

But the next few months will not be easy – for either side. That the airlines are still struggling after receiving billions in government bailouts since 9/11 does not sit well with some in Congress – but neither do the perceived perks of business aviation. It promises to be a hard-fought fight. For the user-fee debate, March has come in a lion and will not leave like a lamb.

Source: Flight International