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Friday, May 18, 2007

Commentary: Premature to Change Funding Mechanism

Kathryn B. Creedy

While the air traffic control system may have long ago broken down, it is premature to change the funding mechanism, especially when it results in fewer funds. More troubling, perhaps, is the industry and government attitude that passengers can be their personal ATM machines. Increased fees are felt much more keenly by regionals than long-haul passengers and have forced short-haul travelers onto the roads to either get to the hub or their ultimate destination.
Regardless of 40 years of failed modernization to cope with increasing traffic, passengers still keep crashing into a wall as more and more airports become congested, begging the question how much results from airline scheduling rather than air traffic control management and, if so, why other user rates should be raised. Those who watch over our tax dollars, including the General Accountability Office, have testified that the current funding mechanism will pay for the Next Generation ATC system.
I find it hard to accept that we should change the system, especially as it seems to reward the FAA for failing in so many areas and airlines for over scheduling. It has yet to outline exactly what it costs to serve various users. It has yet to do what the airlines have done since 911, streamline its operations into a more cost-effective oversight agency.
If you polled people about what it is they really want their government to do for them, it would be to protect them – from bad maintenance, not enough controllers, terrorists, bad drugs, bad business practices and bad food – yet our government explains away its shortcomings by saying we cannot afford to pay for all these things, unless, of course, we devise a user fee. It begs the question of what our tax dollars are actually paying for.
The ill-conceived $25 per-flight-segment fee would be disastrous for regionals whigh, according to RAA Vice President Faye Malarkey, would put regionals carriers $100 million in the red.
There is certainly plenty of ammunition supporting a massive capital needs in the coming decades. (See related stories in this issue.) Airports Council International – North America began its campaign to lift the cap on passenger facility charges citing a need for $87.4 billion over the next four years on new airport infrastructure. The DOT released a new report saying by 2025, 15 metropolitan areas will achieve gridlock, unless they make improvements. But ACI’s efforts would raise the cost of a roundtrip ticket from the current $18 to $30 if Atlanta has its way, which is in addition to a host of other fees placed on passengers to cover everything from security to quenching thirst.
One has only to look at the last decade to see the impact of increased costs on regional airline services. The commuter safety rule increased costs forcing many communities off the map. Related Story  Increased fees resulted in the loss of air service for still more communities.
While the major carriers may want a change in the funding mechanism, it is premature. They may be right that their passengers pay for the lion’s share of the system, but the system places top priority on the airlines, not airlines in general, mind you, but large aircraft operators in particular. So, just as the airlines have separated passengers into a caste system, so, too, has ATC created a similar caste system based on aircraft size. We all know the system is really a numbers game – moving the maximum number of passengers in a minimum amount of time – leaving regionals and all other users playing distant seconds and thirds to the needs of the large-aircraft operators. Indeed, that is unlikely to change.
The airlines charge that it is unfair for their passenger to foot the bill that includes corporate and other users. Unfair? Other users are not getting off scott free. They pay for the system through fuel taxes, and one association reported efforts to more than double them while eliminating the commercial fuel tax.
But consider this: It is unfair to rank passengers into caste system. It in unfair to nickel and dime passengers by charging them an overblown fee for everything under the sun including booking a seat. It is unfair for tickets to go up and service to go down. It is unfair that one is threatened with being a security risk for merely complaining or asking a question. It is unfair for passengers to be held captive on delayed flights with little explanation. It is unfair for regionals to be blamed for consumer problems when it is the majors that are controlling the flight. It is unfair that even though passengers are paying taxes for government services, they have to pay all over again through fees, surcharges and ticket taxes. And it is unfair for airlines to squeeze employees yet reward execs with obscene payouts.
This is not unique to aviation. It is unfair we get nickel and dimed by banks and credit card companies who charge nonsense fees that only serve to feed the bottom line. It is unfair that, while oil companies are raking in record profits, the price of a tank of gas still escalates. It is unfair that any meager raise is eaten up by higher health insurance costs that still leave consumers in massive debt. Call me Pollyanna, but most importantly, it is unfair that they can all get away with this because there is no one in Washington truly representing the people.
So, if some big lobby wants to complain that something is unfair, get in line. Based on the changes in airline economics and service in the last decade, the current funding system is more than fair because airline passengers are getting what they are paying for, priority in a system that has been broken for far too long.
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