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Communities and General Aviation

By Richard Head
Opinion | May 19, 2010

BASEHOR, Kan. - I'm torn. I can see both sides of an issue that's very dear to me: General Aviation flying, particularly from small community airports. As a smartaleck once said, "If a man can see both sides of a problem, you know that none of his money is tied up in it." Well, that's me: I don't have any money tied up in it directly. But, as a taxpayer and a community supporter, I do have money tied up in it.

There's a major effort underway in General Aviation (GA) to save as many small- and medium-sized airports as possible from shutting down and, at the same time, to protect the users of those airports from increased fees and taxes. General Aviation, by the way, is a term that refers to just about anything other than scheduled passenger service by the airlines.

To hear one GA advocacy group tell it,

General aviation continues to face some of the greatest challenges in its 100-year history. State and local governments are pushing new taxes and restrictions on airport operations. Some in the media still like to peddle the image of private aircraft as toys for the rich. And too many in Washington, D.C., still don't understand the vital economic, health, and safety missions that general aviation performs for American communities and our national transportation system.

In our communities, states, and Washington--if these ideas and plans don't change, there will be a lot less flying in America.

And that would threaten 1.2 million GA jobs, critical health and safety services, and the fabric of our national transportation system. It would also mean higher costs or stunted growth for thousands of businesses that rely on general aviation every day.

I don't quibble with much of the above. Well, the threatened loss of 1.2 million jobs is a bit of a stretch, don't you think? I mean, the domino theory was pretty well discredited in Southeast Asia. But, then, that's typical hyperbole when someone's corporate ox is getting gored. And that's where the other side of the issue comes in.

As a private pilot, even though I'm a Saturday-morning-renter and not an owner, I don't want to see my hourly rental rate increased because of user fees, excise taxes, aircraft repair and maintenance taxes, and on and on. As a taxpayer, however, I'm concerned that a huge section of GA is really another form of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare. Much of the volume of GA, particularly in smaller cities without regularly-scheduled passenger service, is corporate jets or turbo-props, business helicopter services, air freight, etc. That's where the strident anti-tax, anti-fee advocates enter the picture. If the only fliers affected by tax and fee increases were Saturday morning duffers like me, then organizations like the one quoted above wouldn't lift a finger to help. But, when there's taxpayer-funded business infrastructure that's at stake (privatize the gain, socialize the risk), then the long knives come out.

My last point is anathema to the corporate GA advocates. My ability to see anything but their side makes me a heretic. But, here again, the old "follow the money" theory inevitably leads me to ask difficult questions.

There's a third actor here in the equation that is pushing for the increased fees and taxes: the airlines. The airlines are apoplectic about GA's ability to have smaller aircraft that cater to corporate passengers, charters, freight, etc. The major airlines want GA fees to increase because that would mean fewer taxes and fees imposed on them.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to see a single airport--anywhere--lost or closed. And I don't want to see local businesses negatively affected by loss of air service. But when GA resists absolutely any increase in fees or taxes, especially when those fees and taxes maintain the infrastructure that business benefits from, then I have to ask hard questions. I won't get into the details of some of the ludicrous GA proposals that have come out of Washington, but I also think it ridiculous for GA to fight any and all changes to the current funding formula.

Ask questions. Follow the money.


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