WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many pilots and aircraft owners breathed a huge sigh of relief when President Obama’s budget for 2011 did not contain user fees, but none of the groups working Washington have let their guards down. Not only do user fees remain an issue, but security has raised its ugly head in the wake of the Austin IRS crash.
Another budget must be presented next year and the current administration shows no signs of letting the user fee issue drop. What happens with FAA reauthorization could help determine which way several issues, including user fees, will go. The airlines are not giving up on their push for user fees. Helping to defray the costs of the ATC system is not an issue as important to them as is moving general aviation out of what most airlines consider their airspace.
With user fees at least temporarily off the table, the big push now is security. The pilot who crashed his Piper into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, gave the anti-general aviation interests a dramatic incident to rally around. Many publications have carried editorials and news stories questioning the security of GA aircraft. General aviation interests were already busy on the road, lobbying to keep tighter security measures restricted to heavier aircraft, usually flown by professional crews from larger businesses, which can more easily handle the entanglements that security programs bring.
Austin changed that. The Transportation Department and the National Transportation Safety Board wanted no part of investigating the crash, declaring it was a criminal act, so the Federal Bureau of Investigation was assigned to handle it. That agency is mum. There is some speculation that seats were taken from the Piper and a load of flammable liquid put in their place, which caused the large fire. This has not been confirmed.
Certain members of Congress are using the incident to make security an even bigger issue, pushing the Transportation Security Administration to set out major programs to supposedly make general aviation airports, plane owners, and pilots more secure. Among the leaders is West Virginia Democrat Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller IV. Chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he strongly favors user fees. He continues in his anti-general aviation position, despite the fact his governor declared February “General Aviation Month” in West Virginia, as have officials in nearly a dozen other states.
The situation could be far worse were it not for the work of many, such as the GA caucuses in both houses of Congress, the continued efforts of the alphabet groups, personal contacts by pilots, and the united efforts of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a conglomeration of pilots and aircraft owners and GA groups, as well as local governments and businesses that rely on GA. As a wise man said, “You can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.