Ruffled Feathers…User Fees — Part 2 of 2

By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal

What’s at Stake?

Personal airplane operating costs have mushroomed over the past decade. Insurance has gone up. Hangars are very expensive. The list goes on. What about parts? I like to think I’m able to source them at a reasonable price since I first started owning and maintaining an airplane from my early 20s. I am pretty good at gophering around. Prices have, for the most part, doubled. Options for finding serviceable parts are running out. Certified mods, STCs, again, it all adds up. All the major suppliers are in the same boat competing with one another and, overall, are doing their best to keep prices in check as they know that the GA network is a fragile one.

We’ve even just instituted an airplane luxury tax (20 percent) for anything over $100,000 to $200,000 with an additional 10 percent thereafter past the $200,000 mark. This is all in addition to the HST that’s already in place by the two levels of government. So it’s tax, upon tax, upon tax. Guess where the new price for almost anything sold is headed? That’s right, $99,999, just to avoid the additional add-on taxes!

If something isn’t done about easing the overall restrictions to aircraft ownership (these are both financial and bureaucratic), then there won’t be much incentive for it to prosper and grow. It begs the question — why do they exist? If it doesn’t pay for very much, then what is its use and how does it promote our sector? It obviously doesn’t inspire the next generations into flying. I have always considered local airports to be the heart of our aviation-minded country, where pilots learn to fly and where some communities rely on a connection to the outside world. In times of real crisis, they’d all wish they had a strip to get people and supplies in and out. I see more registered airstrips disappearing than being built. If we don’t have the aircraft flying that will train future generations of pilots, then where will the energy and willpower come from to keep our current airports open? I equate it to the big fish/little fish analogy. Is it in our interest from a financial (economic benefits) standpoint to starve the big airlines (big fish) of competent and experienced pilots (most of whom come from GA and third tier airline levels) at the expense of getting rid of the fleet (little fish) that’s still around to train them? Recent demand shows that the pilot ranks are diminished, and it isn’t getting better anytime soon. I’d like to think that this isn’t an option, but it is where we are going. A good step in the right direction would be to scrap these annoying fees and reorient our efforts to stabilize the numbers and grow them. I don’t see more services offered to keep people flying, and fuel prices aren’t decreasing! The last such effort to do so was probably the owner maintenance category, yet even that initiative has its drawbacks. Putting a large X on the data plate of your aircraft has the negative effect of reducing its value (prices on the market reflect this), so why would we try to further reduce the value of our machines if we are already faced with escalating costs of operating them?


Big Fish/Little Fish  — We learn the basics on the small birds to fly the big ones.
Photo Courtesy Josh Kaiser

Other Countries

From my experience, overwhelming taxes in other countries have sacked their GA communities. Countries like Belgium, France, Germany, and England all had once-thriving small airports, yet now most of them are run on a pay-as-you-go basis, resulting in very little traffic. The airports are still there and accessible by the upper middle class (if that exists?), yet the activity at them suggests that it’s only for the privileged few. I once met a Piper Aztec owner in England who had to be really creative and file every flight as a “training flight” to subvert the air charges. Even then, the charges were billed anyway, and it was up to him at the end of the year to provide “evidence,” with logbook entries, bills, etc., to justify that training had been carried out on each of the flights to be eligible for rebates. Talk about paperwork! Most “employees” of the local airports there move about in bright yellow safety vests marshaling and tending to airplanes just like they do at the large commercial airports. If you don’t have one of these, you aren’t allowed “airside.” You don’t really feel welcomed when you’re ushered about and escorted, behind a fence on the “active” side, just to see what’s going on. Fortunately, we don’t yet have this phenomenon happening at our GA airports, but there will soon be a point where the common man or woman won’t have the financial means to fly, if it’s made out of reach by taxes.

Yellow vests aren’t much good if there are not many aircraft movements. They do more to keep people out than to encourage their participation.

A Peruvian friend once explained to me how the ramp at his local airport in Piura, Peru, was reduced to an empty parking lot when his country started to charge owners per flown kilometer when they went up for any flight; they were billed from the local authority for air navigation services from startup to shutdown, all tracked on a filed flight plan. No flight plan? Sorry, no flying. From that point on in the mid-’70s, the once-full ramp (approximately 75 aircraft from C-150s to bigger singles and light twins) diminished to a sole Piper Pawnee that was used by a local farmer for his crops. This was my observation there in the late ’90s when flying a Canadian-registered Piper Navajo on a geophysical survey. Granted, as a business, we were expected to pay for the service, yet a once-thriving community was rendered extinct as a result of these fees. Even if we were self-sufficient with our own mechanic, tending to our airplane, there wasn’t a chance of finding another mechanic within three hours’ flying time, as the business just wasn’t there to support that job.

The USA and the “Trickle-Down Effect”

I believe the GA community south of the border recognizes what’s at risk with parts of its federal government wanting to privatize its air navigation system. It looks like the right thing to do, but there’s the “trickle-down effect” to consider. If the small airplanes vanish, then so do all the support jobs. Again, no little fish, no big fish. I’ve talked with many Americans about this, and almost all agree that their country is the last bastion for an active and thriving GA community. Oshkosh even had a record turnout this year! People want to keep flying. Yes, their air navigation network is running at a large deficit, and it is up to Congress to keep funding the FAA, but they also recognize that by taxing the little guy, they aren’t solving the bigger picture of how to run the airspace. Besides, the cost/benefit analysis likely suggests that there are far more jobs derived from it versus the cost of funding it. It has to be funded anyway for the airlines (or, as in Canada, funded by the airlines). Just look at all the innovation that has sprung to life from the businesses that support experimental and certified small airplanes. Even the new and exciting designs of VTOL aircraft can potentially grow, because there is GA behind it. If just this sector comes to full fruition, its economic footprint will be staggering! As a result, you feel that there is hope for stuff to prosper and grow — stemming from all quarters, from the people in the towers to the availability of parts and services. This may be the result of their population density, but I think it is more their passion to keep something alive and thriving versus just taxing it outright into oblivion. We could learn a lesson from this and should keep a watchful eye over our bureaucrats and private, not-for-profit system.

John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal, 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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