Tuesday April 4, 2006

Will FAA User Fee Ground Some Pilots?

Domestic recruiting pool for commercial pilots and humanitarian flights at risk if FAA proposal flies, according to an associate mechanical and aerospace engineering professor with 16 years experience in the aviation industry.

Any funding overhaul for the nation's aviation system - currently under review by the White House budget office - that includes pilot user fees could eliminate a domestic recruiting pool of commercial pilots and humanitarian-type flights, according to University of Dayton associate mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Aaron Altman.

"The airlines will need to import pilots and pay more to train them to airline standards," said Altman, who has 16 years experience in the aviation industry. "You can be sure the airlines won't do free angel flights like general aviation pilots do currently."

Funding for the FAA Airport and Airway Trust Fund currently comes from passenger tickets, passenger flight segments, international arrivals and departures, cargo waybills, aviation fuels and frequent flyer mile awards from non-airline sources like credit cards. Airlines would like those who pilot smaller planes to pay more.

Altman blames bureaucracy, short-sightedness and favoritism of airlines for funding shortfalls that "keep the FAA from modernizing an airspace system that has fallen behind Europe's." He stressed that it's not because general aviation isn't paying its fair share.

"Obviously, the airlines are looking for ways to reduce their costs, fairly or unfairly," Altman said. "Larger planes burn more fuel, do more damage to runways, and require longer runways, larger airports and more resources on the ground. In the air, commercial planes use the same resources as any other instrument aircraft. If only the flying part mattered, they might have a slightly defensible point. But the FAA aviation trust fund pays for so much more."

What Altman says is different in the air are the implications of an air traffic control system error or failure. Because the implications for a 400-passenger airliner would be greater than for a two-seat general aviation airplane, he supports commercial airline passengers continuing to help foot the bill.

"If we tax the individual users, it is because of a life-and-death necessity for a correctly working air traffic control system," he said. "There is a much greater impact on the individual user of the system and not the operators."

Altman believes nothing, including pilot user fees, will save the airline industry and it will continue receiving government bailouts. Airlines need to raise their ticket prices or reduce expenses to be competitive and survive at the same time, he said.

"If we need to subsidize the airlines, let's just do it outright and say it is in the nation's best interest," Altman said. "Taxing the owners of a two-seat airplane who have to enter into a partnership with four or five other people to be able to afford to fly is not the answer."

Altman said proposals that rule out pilot user fees for "recreational pilots" are mostly meaningless anyway because there are so few pilots who fall under that newer classification.

According to Altman, this discussion has raged on for quite a few years, even before the Sept. 11 attacks and the instability of fuel prices, which are often offered as reasons for change. Nothing has been implemented because of stiff competition from the national business aircraft and aircraft owners and pilots associations.

"I do expect it before the end of the Bush administration," Altman said. "Privatizing air traffic control has been one of its pushes from day one."

Altman, who worked on the Airbus A380 and has commented on industry issues for United Press International, Wired.com, Industry Week and the New York Post, said such user-based free structures in Canada and New Zealand are unpopular with all but the airlines.

For more information, contact Shawn Robinson at (937) 229-3391.