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Air Traffic Control and You: Paying a Fair Share

Cindy Loose

No question, the air traffic control system is outdated and needs a major overhaul. But who's going to pay for it? The battle is on, with airlines pushing Congress to have the owners of private and corporate jets pony up a bigger share.

Passengers of commercial airlines are responsible for the lion's share of air traffic control costs, by paying a 7.5 percent tax plus a $3.50 fee. Meanwhile, the airlines complain that wealthy people in private jets are responsible for 17 percent of the costs of operating air traffic control systems but pay only 8 percent.

One bill that just made it out of the Senate Commerce Committee -- but still has a long way to go -- would charge $25 for every plane that takes off and uses the air traffic control system. (This fee would not apply to the recreational fliers in little prop planes that navigate by rivers and other landmarks.)

Delta and United have been sending emails to their customers urging them to contact members of Congress to support higher fees on private and corporate jets. Some air traffic controllers, meanwhile, argue that the FAA has enough money already, but just doesn't spend it wisely.

Anyone who flies Delta beginning Sept. 1 will learn more about it, at least from the airline's perspective, during a short video.

The battle raises a couple of questions, including: Should passengers on private jets be paying at least the same amount as a passenger on a commercial airline, or should they pay even more? Should airlines be using their email list to engage passengers? Is a video to captive passengers a good way to get out a message?

By Cindy Loose |  August 7, 2007; 10:12 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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"Meanwhile, the airlines complain that wealthy people in private jets are responsible for only 17 percent of the cost of operating air traffic control systems."

This statistic only makes sense if you also tell us how much of air traffic is wealthy people in private jets. If they're 2 percent of traffic and they pay 17 percent of costs, that seems like more than their fair share; if they're 40 percent of traffic and they pay 17 percent of costs, then, ok, they need to pay more. Which is it?

Posted by: h3 | August 7, 2007 10:47 AM

What are the finer details concernig the proposed $25 charge? You don't have to be a private jet to use the ATC system, or some rich hot shot. Those little recreational prop planes you refer to many times can also fly "on instruments" if the plane is so equiped and the pilot properly licenced. When you fly on instruments,a pilot and plane rely on ATC interaction in order to get to where they are traveling. This is mainly during poor weather or visibility under what are known at IFR conditions. (Instrument Flight Rules)

I can see this charge being somewhat reasonable for those who must use the ATC under IFR rules due to the altitude threshhold (you must fly on instruments after you go above a certain altitude, regardless the weather- this applies mainly to the airlines and those with specialized aircraft). However, the recreational pilots who use the ATC for IFR simply due to bad weather should not be charged this fee. The Private pilots are already taking it hard with all the flight area restrictions and closing of private airports.

Posted by: keydet | August 7, 2007 11:58 AM

I'm about to make my entry more clear---according to the association of airlines, private jets account for 17% of the cost of air traffic control, but they pay 8% of the cost currently.

Posted by: cindy loose | August 7, 2007 12:20 PM

I don't think the 1st poster understood the statistic from the blog. The blog said that private jets pay just 8% of all air traffic control's operating costs but their actual cost is a whopping 17%. Therefore, private jets receive the same benefits but at half the price. In other words, it's "a subsidy for the rich."

This is an eye opener. I've never heard about such a gap before, and it is certainly something the public should understand. Could the Washington Post write about this in greater detail or conduct its own calculations? The association of airlines may very well be right, but an independent analysis might be in order.

For example, if fees/rates are collected on a per passenger basis, then private jets with far fewer passengers will probably pay out less per aircraft even if the fee/rate is higher for private jet passengers. Shouldn't private jet passengers be responsible for the cost of its air traffic control? Theoretically, the cost of guiding a plane should be the same regardless of private/commercial status.

So what is the current fee/rate structure? What are the actual costs per plane? Is there a cost difference between private or commercial planes? What do experts and passengers think would be a more equitable solution?

Posted by: Bonjour Mon Ami | August 7, 2007 1:30 PM

To the last commenter - it says that now because I asked for a clarification. I agree, the original post is clear now - yay for editing!

Posted by: h3 | August 7, 2007 2:38 PM

I got it. Thanks, h3!

Posted by: Bonjour Mon Ami | August 7, 2007 3:39 PM

The cost for each airplane to use the system is the same so the charge should be a flat fee on a per plane basis. If commercial airlines then build that into the price of each ticket so that all passengers share the cost equally, then the cost per person versus a private jet only carrying one or two people would be more but it would still be fair.

Posted by: Dublin Traveler | August 8, 2007 9:34 AM

The cost for each airplane to use the system is the same so the charge should be a flat fee on a per plane basis. If commercial airlines then build that into the price of each ticket so that all passengers share the cost equally, then the cost per person versus a private jet only carrying one or two people would be more but it would still be fair.

Posted by: Dublin Traveler | August 8, 2007 9:35 AM

The airlines' analysis of costs is suspect at best. Most of the cost of the Air Traffic Control System is fixed cost and there for the safety of the general public. As an example, if a control tower at a medium sized airport [where most small planes fly] is needed because of the safety rules of carrying passengers for hire, but there are only a few commercial flights per hour, should the costs be stuck on small planes who fly during the rest of the time and who don't need or want the tower? That's what the airlines want to do. Small planes pay fuel taxes for the infrastructure the same way cars pay a gas tax. That has been the way it has been taken care of for the past 40 years and it should stay that way.

Posted by: dp | August 8, 2007 1:39 PM

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