Air traffic control at issue

With the number of air travelers expected to reach 1 billion by 2015, Federal Aviation Administration officials are pushing to raise funds for a satellite-based air traffic control system they say will prevent gridlock.

On Wednesday William Withycombe, administrator of the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region, was in Las Vegas to tout the proposed $20 billion NextGen control system as part of its upcoming budget reauthorization in Congress.

The idea, said Withycombe, is that under NextGen controllers could safely put more planes closer together in the air and better route them around storms and other hazards.

“If we don’t build this, it is going to be gridlock,” Withycombe said during an interview. “It has to be done.”

But funding for the program is controversial because it involves large increases in the fuel tax on general aviation aircraft, a group that includes private jets, individual pilots and tour operators, among others. It also includes lifting a 7.5 percent ticket tax paid by commercial airline passengers and user fees for all aircraft.

Opponents of the shift say it moves an unfair amount of the funding burden to the general aviation industry to the benefit of large commercial airlines.

“It would net out to a huge tax giveaway, a huge tax cut, for the airlines,” said Selena Shilad, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Aviation Across America. “It would basically codify the notion that a small plane would get taxed the same way as a jumbo jet liner.”

Airline flights are responsible for about 73 percent of the cost of operating the nation’s air traffic control system, the FAA reports.

But under the current system ticket taxes from airline passengers account for 95 percent of the FAA’s trust fund, a pool of money that represents $11 billion, or nearly 80 percent of the FAA’s annual funding.

General aviation, which the FAA says is responsible for about 16 percent of the cost, pays just 3 percent. Under the new system, general aviation’s share of the bill would increase to 11 percent, according to the FAA.

Locally, about 402,000 commercial flights use the airspace of McCarran International Airport annually, carrying about 42 million passengers. In 2006 there were about 64,000 general aviation flights at McCarran, 197,000 at the North Las Vegas Airport and 58,000 at Henderson Executive Airport.

Independent pilots, air charter services and private jet users vehemently oppose the change because lost ticket tax revenue would be replaced by a near tripling of the fuel tax for general aviation craft.

“It is going to cost us a lot more money and make us raise our prices to clients,” said Wesley Brush of Reno, who operates an aerial photography business and flies corporate jets.

General aviation now pays a tax of 21.8 cents per gallon of jet fuel and 19.3 cents for aviation gasoline. Under the FAA’s proposed budget, general aviation would pay 70 cents per gallon on both.

The private operators purchased nearly 29 million gallons of the most common jet fuel in 2006 at the three airports in Clark County, meaning the new tax would have added about $13.8 million to fuel costs.

The tax commercial airlines pay for fuel would increase from 4.3 cents to 13.6 per gallon.

But Withycombe says it is a matter of fairness. He said private planes use the national air traffic control system just like airliners whose passengers pay the bulk of the cost.

“(Commercial passengers) shouldn’t be paying for that business jet that is flying a few miles behind (them),” he said.

There are versions of the funding proposal in each House of Congress. The FAA’s current budget authorization runs out Sept. 30, Withycombe said. The current version includes money that would authorize bonds for about $5 billion to start working on NextGen. It won’t be fully in place until at least 2025, according to the FAA.

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