There is enough heated rhetoric regarding the topic to warm up an NFL stadium but what sends cold chills down my back is the very real possibility that some pilots will try to save a buck. We won’t discuss class warfare, party affiliation, collection efficiencies, big government, the fuel tax or inherent fairness. The politics of this can and should be handled by AOPA but the potential safety ramifications are real and should not be left out of the calculus. The stated plan by the government is that a $100 per flight segment would only apply to turbine powered aircraft. Before we get into how this concept could mutate let’s just look at it at face value.
On short flights – say to reposition, some jet operators could easily decide that they should fly lower and under VFR to avoid the fee. Today almost every turbine fixed wing aircraft operates with the protection of IFR. The jets typically fly higher because of fuel burn and there is guaranteed separation from all other IFR aircraft. Good idea! But under the new rules it’s easy to see the rationalization that could take place.
The unintended consequences are myriad: Low altitude unpressurized turbine aircraft such as the Caravan or the Kodiak routinely ply the skies below 10,000 – guess who will now go VFR whenever possible? It may not necessarily be safe in marginal VFR but why pay when you can go for free? Much of the helicopter fleet is turbine and they routinely fly low altitude. Does this make sense?
As new variants of very light jets come into the mix they too may eschew the systemic protection because they are not in the same economic strata of Gulfstreams or Challengers. Is the rule to be based on turbine fuel? I predict that we’ll start to see diesels coming into the light aircraft fleet and they use turbine fuel or jet A. Where is the line drawn?
The fee proposal mentions controlled airspace. In most areas east of the Mississippi it starts at 1,200 feet agl, lower in transition areas around airports. Let’s suppose that isn’t what the government meant but rather mandatory communication airspace such as Class D, C, B, or A. Do we really want some of the turbine fleet routinely trying to avoid the system that was put in place to keep us all from colliding? Given the choice between paying the fee every single time the turbine flies out of a towered airport, it seems economically rational that there would be a migration to non-towered airports where much of the non-turbine fleet lives. That is not the safest mix in the world.
Now take all this and extrapolate it to other parts of the fleet. No – that couldn’t possibly happen, could it? And the per segment fee couldn’t possibly increase during times of economic downturn or because the fee itself reduces demand? Look at the history of user fees in other parts of the world. I’ve spent some time talking with non-aviation friends about this and when it’s explained in this way, almost all of them agree that our present system, funded by fuel taxes and some contribution from the general fund makes far better sense. We’d like to hear your safety thoughts.