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User Fees: More Questions Than Answers

by Greg Reigel 1. May 2009 00:00
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As most of you already know, President Obama's administration recently released a proposed budget that, once again, includes an intent to partially fund the FAA with user fees. Although the budget does not specifically identify the types of fees that may be assessed, one can only imagine the various "surcharges" that may be imposed (e.g. landing fees, ATC fees, Flight Service/Weather briefing fees etc.). As an industry, general aviation is opposed to user fees as an unnecessary, additional and expensive burden. (Of course this is the short version of the primary arguments asserted in opposition to user fees.)

Unanswered Questions

However, the idea of user fees also raises a whole variety of practical questions that remain unanswered by their proponents:

How will the user fees be assessed? Will the fees be assessed against the pilot, against the aircraft or, perhaps, against the aircraft owner? If they are assessed against the aircraft owner, what if the aircraft owner didn't authorize the activity for which the fee was charged? Would assessment of a fee against an aircraft owner under these circumstances violate due process?

How will they be collected? Will the fees be charged at the point of sale (e.g. when you obtain a weather brief or when you land) or will an account be established upon which an invoice or bill will later be sent requesting payment? If the former, would FSS briefers demand a credit card number from a pilot prior to delivering a weather briefing or accepting a flight plan? If the latter, will the account be for the pilot, the aircraft, the aircraft owner or all of the above?

Who will collect the user fees? Would the FAA collect the fees directly or would collection be delegated to some other agency like, for example, the Internal Revenue Service? If the FAA collects the fees, will this require formation of an additional level of bureaucracy to deal with collection and enforcement? Or would the regional counsel's office be tasked with collection of unpaid fees? And how would that impact their current civil penalty and certificate action enforcement caseload?

What happens if a user disputes a fee? For example, what if the fees are assessed against the wrong party or amount assessed is incorrect? Will the innocent/aggrieved party have the opportunity/ability to contest or object to imposition of the fee? Who will decide the dispute? Will the dispute resolution process be fair and provide due process? Will the user have the right to appeal?

What happens if they are not paid? Will the government aggressively collect unpaid fees? Could unpaid fees become liens against aircraft or, worse yet, the equivalent of tax liens against the pilot or aircraft owner? If the unpaid fees are assessed against a pilot, could the pilot's airman certificate(s) be at risk for failure to pay?


As you can see, aside from the political arguments as to whether user fees are an appropriate funding source for the FAA, the logistics of implementing a user fee system present equally formidable challenges that have yet to be addressed. Rather than simply looking at the potential revenue that user fees may generate, the administration will also need to offset that revenue with the costs of implementing and managing the necessary collection and enforcement mechanisms. An honest analysis may likely reveal that user fees are simply not worth it.

I don't have the answer to all of these questions, nor do I necessarily want to think of answers. After all, I am hoping that Congress will heed the voices of general aviation and refuse to approve user fees. However, if user fees are adopted, all of these questions, and more, will ultimately need to be answered. You can and should contact your senators and representatives to ask these questions now and voice your concerns. Write to them. Call them. Talk to them in person if you have the opportunity. Let them know that user fees are not a viable option for funding the FAA.


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Greg Reigel


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