Ruffled Feathers: User Fees — Part 1 of 2

By John Wyman, EAA 462533 Chapter 266 Montreal

One of the biggest mistakes that I think has happened to our country’s air navigation system over the past decades has been its privatization. It’s a bold statement. This is based mainly on my view that it was, and is, a blanket approach that was put into place covering all facets of the air network, to anyone who uses it. That’s a big shot to call, but I’ll do my best to explain my outlook on how the system works and how it may be modified for others (like general aviation) to prosper, rather than just exist.


A wee bit of history…

Our Canadian air navigation network was privatized in 1996. It must be a big show running an organization charged with covering 18 million square kilometers with 4,000 employees and 45,000 customers. The new company was appropriately called Nav Canada. These are all promotional numbers from their website. Back then, the powers that be (I assume, the government) thought that a not-for-profit corporation could do a better job of running it and provide the same or better level of service, all under the idea that it was an improvement over Canadians paying for it. Its 2021 annual report showed total revenue of 815 million dollars. It’s a sizeable chunk of change and many in the system would likely say that we should be happy that fees haven’t climbed more and that it is still the model for all countries to follow. But is it? It’s a really complicated puzzle that I will neither defend or accuse of mismanagement — yet for all the fingers that are in the pie, I think that COPA’s one position on its advisory board (20 reps from the industry), doesn’t carry enough weight to prevent any fees. That, or the other reps and board members don’t listen to their views. Hard to say, I am not there.


… Back to the beginnings

The ‘90s saw the government dispersing its airports to “airport authorities” to run and maintain the major airports in Canada. There are about 16 — roughly one and a few for each province. This was the land side of the overhaul. We now have some of the most expensive airports in the world based on airport operating costs, turning around airplanes, charging for landings. Many would-be passengers drive across the border for better deals on flights. It hasn’t worked too well. The government may be making money from the leased properties, but it isn’t trickling down to the airlines’ bottom line. Next up, (pun intended) was the air above it. In principle, it too is a pay-as-you-go environment for everyone. It is my recollection too, that at the time (I was just starting out then), there was an effort from the GA community, specifically COPA, to have these air charges reduced or dropped altogether. Maybe they succeeded as fees are still relatively low? It was a tricky subject that the then newly formed Nav Canada said would be overlooked by them when an aircraft contacted them for air separation (ATC), radio services, and flight planning (FSS), or even accessing weather information from their website. This is still true today. We don’t pay for talking to the controllers but we do still pay a fee to fly. Yet, when I received another annual Nav Canada bill for my Cessna 140 that flies very little, I asked why should I pay for this small aircraft that doesn’t pay for itself and how can fees promote people to fly? Does money always have to be at the root of something to say if it’s viable or not?

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4 seat Stinson 108 and tandem 2 seat Aeronca 65 Hp Champ. One aircraft falls within the minimum weight category and the other is light enough at its max take-off weight to just skirt the charges. Yet, both airplanes are flown privately, run at the owners expense. They and other types from the GA fleet are the torches that ignite the fire and passion to “fly” at our fly-ins.

Fee Creep

There is this insidious thing called “fee creep” that threatens to halt our private flying if the current fees are raised much further. Transport Canada has recently increased their overall fee structure — but are you able to claim that they are easier to reach these days? Hmmmm. Yes, we do not (for the moment) pay for filing a flight plan or to takeoff from one farmer’s field to another. We DO pay for landing fees at all the major international airports and at a lot of other district airports, like St. Hubert in Longueil, Quebec, or Oshawa, Ontario as examples. Take a close look at the number of private flyers visiting those district airports. From my (local) observations, I see that it’s the commercial operators and not the visitors that are supporting their movements. Why would we go there just to be charged a landing fee for a touch-and-go? And this is precisely my point — that it is the businesses that make money with their aircraft that are in a position to pay for those air navigation services. If the airlines or commercial operators can pass along those costs to the paying client, then why not have them pay for the complete network? They are, after all, the predominant users. Just to be fair, throw in the business jets too — I’d think that their tax write-offs and bank accounts can handle it.

Per passenger, it probably works out to cents on the mile for GA’s contribution. On the other hand, private owners are billed every year by Nav Canada for navigation fees based on the weight of the aircraft, under the premise that the larger the aircraft, the more it should pay. The missing part is that not every airplane in the sky is making money to pay for this. Who then should foot the costs and does the current model work? I think most across the board would reply that it does. Yet how many of us have asked is there an alternative and what could it be? Personally, I’d like to see on my bill, who’s paying for what and what is the percentage from private flyers that’s keeping the system functional. Don’t get me wrong, their bill is detailed and it does offer two ways of paying it. You can opt to pay a daily rate which is much higher. But when was the last time you received a detailed bill that makes it any less digestible? I will give them this much. It is still less than $100 (which doesn’t go far these days) — so that is accommodating. But it all adds up and apart from the ultralights and gliders out there, there probably aren’t many exceptions to paying these fees. I pay it for a small two-seat Cessna 140, so how many other two-seat general aviation aircraft weigh below this threshold that’s set at 0.617 to 2.0 metric tonnes (1,360 to 4,409 pounds?). Maybe the odd 65-hp Champ or J-3? It is set low, meaning almost everyone’s gotta pay. How much do these small airplanes tax the overall system? I don’t know many private owners who go out of their way to engage busy controllers. I mention two-seat aircraft because it is those types that offer the newly minted flyer a chance to get airborne after they’ve obtained their license. Shouldn’t we be offering those same private flyers a chance to develop their flying without the added burden of charges, over and above the basic cost of operating their aircraft? It ain’t cheap flying airplanes and when the charges keep piling up, the average owner will get to the point where they wonder if it is still justifiable to fly.

Moreover, what are the revenues produced from this kind of tax? It’s not like the number of small airplanes flying produce anywhere near the revenue that people pay for their cars. Even then, if you do pay for a car it is probably (in part) because you need it to earn an income. If we were to just look at small airplane numbers — what would we deem from them? Let’s start with say, the number of small two-seat certified and amateur-built aircraft flying in Canada that are in the aforementioned bracket of tonnage. The vast majority of these airplanes were produced from post WWII until the early ‘50s. From then on, the numbers dropped off progressively until the early ‘80s when they stopped altogether. If you were to add them all up, how many would you have…a few thousand at the most, that are actively flying in the country? If I was to arbitrarily say that this was 5,000 aircraft, would this be accurate? Assuming it was, the revenues produced from this weight category would be $458,750 based my bill of $91.75 (excluding taxes) per aircraft. This roughly equates to about 3-4 controllers combined salaries at Nav Canada per year, with no overtime, and that certainly isn’t the case these days. Talk to the controllers. They are doing a lot of OT. Nav Canada’s operating budget is substantially more. I would think that represents a penny or two on the dollar against the overall operating costs of our air navigation system. Even if I were to double the revenues to a million dollars, how does this offset real operating costs if all of these costs could be passed on to the flying passenger?


* Continued in the next issue of Bits and Pieces.

John Wyman is a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes and fix stuff…

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