updated 2/13/2007 8:12:07 PM ET 2007-02-14T01:12:07

The Bush administration’s long-awaited plan to pay for a new, high-tech air traffic control system would eliminate the passenger ticket tax but raise other costs for people who fly.

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The Federal Aviation Administration will unveil its proposal Wednesday. The announcement will touch off a fierce debate between airlines, which support the concept, and owners of corporate jets and private aircraft, who will pay more to fly in the national air space.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who outlined the plan in recent budget briefings, says the aging air traffic control system urgently needs replacing to avoid gridlock in the sky.

The World War II-era radar-and-radio system is becoming obsolete as new digital technology provides pilots with satellite signals to aid in aerial navigation.

The FAA hasn’t said exactly how much it expects a modernized system to cost.

But Blakey has said the current way of paying for air traffic control — the 7.5 percent passenger ticket tax — won’t generate the billions of dollars needed.

The ticket tax is inadequate partly because of the growth of low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines and partly because the average airplane has gotten smaller and carries fewer passengers, the FAA says. It costs the FAA as much to direct a small airplane as it does to move a jumbo jet.

Hence, the FAA is asking Congress to let it collect fees that reflect the actual cost of flying.
Though the passenger ticket tax would be eliminated, another ticket tax that pays for airport improvements — called passenger facility charges — would go up.

The fuel tax for corporate and private aircraft would more than triple.

Airlines, led by the Air Transport Association, have lobbied hard for the government to shift more of the cost of the air traffic control system to corporate jets.

“The ATA recognizes the need for air traffic control modernization and a funding mechanism that takes into account the cost of using the system,” said ATA spokesman David Castelveter.
The association says airlines pay for 93.7 percent of the air traffic control system, but use only 68.1 percent of it. Corporate, recreational and military aircraft use the remaining 31.9 percent.
To illustrate the burden corporate aircraft place on the system, the ATA notes that at 10 a.m. on the day after the Super Bowl, corporate jets departing South Florida outnumbered commercial airliners by at least three to one.

Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, says that’s like standing outside of a church on Easter Sunday and claiming it’s a normal service.

Bolen says it’s the hub-and-spoke system created by large airlines that burdens the system. “When you put 50 airplanes in a single airport in 30 minutes, that drives the cost,” Bolen said.
“We’ve got a system in the U.S. that’s the largest, safest, most efficient in the world,” he said. “It’s been funded through user taxes for 40 years, it’s worked. We don’t need to set up a new bureaucracy.”

Some elements of the plan include:

  • The FAA would get broad discretion to charge a fee based on such factors as the distance traveled, the size of the plane, time of day and whether the air space is congested.
  • The fuel tax for private aircraft would rise from 21.9 cents per gallon to 70 cents per gallon.
  • The FAA could charge new fees for services such as certifying airplane models and registering aircraft.
  • The FAA could borrow money and issue bonds.

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