I haven’t had any luck getting the McCain campaign to fill me in on the details of his aviation plan (if he has one). His website has one mention of aviation, and it’s a throwaway press release on the air traffic control communications outage in August with a boilerplate call for reform in Washington. However, his twenty-six years in Washington and his chairmanship of the Senate committee that oversees aviation mean he has a pretty wide paper trail. Two of the most important issues on which he’s weighed in are air traffic control modernization (and how to fund it) and international aviation agreements.
John McCain has a track record of supporting market-based air traffic control reforms. In a 2001 interview with General Aviation News, which is full of revealing nuggets, he discussed a Reason Foundation report proposing a commercialized, nonprofit government corporation to provide air traffic control services (much like NAV CANADA). The interviewer was especially concerned about McCain’s support for user fees, the bete noire of the general-aviation community, and asked: “You have advocated ATC user fees in the past. Do you continue to support that approach?” McCain replied:
While there are a number of ideas about how to fund the aviation system, I have not yet come to a final conclusion about the best solution. The Commerce Committee will continue to examine different proposals and ideas, including a user-fee system. As I have often stated publicly, I am always open to new and fresh ideas on how to provide the proper funding to ensure a safe and efficient air-transportation system. The issue of user fees is closely linked to funding for the FAA, which is absolutely critical to the future of aviation in our country. The national air transportation system needs a predictable and reliable funding stream that is not subject to unnecessary budget pressures and gimmicks. A positive step in the right direction was the funding provided through the most recent FAA reauthorization bill, commonly known as AIR-21. But AIR-21 is not a permanent solution, and ensuring adequate funding for the long-term future of aviation remains a challenge.
While avoiding an endorsement of the Reason proposal, McCain did promise to include commercialization in the Commerce Committee deliberations on ATC: “However, the issue of ATC modernization is certainly an issue that the Commerce Committee will be looking into this year, and I expect ATC privatization will be included in the overall scope of the debate.”
User fees seem to appeal to McCain’s populist political persona and rhetoric. While acknowledging that user fees should not be structured to harm recreational users, he assails business jets’ use of the system:
I believe that any ATC system should be fair and balanced and paid for by those who make the most use of the system. A privatized ATC system may be more efficient than a government-run system, which may in turn produce savings for the major airlines. At the same time, a privatized system may benefit passengers by reducing the number of delays and cancellations. However, a user-funded system should not come at the expense of others, such as recreational aircraft, that do not impose as much stress on the system as airlines and business jets. For example, I believe that business jets, which carry passengers who otherwise would fly on commercial aircraft and which utilize the ATC system much as the airlines do, should not be exempt from paying their fair share for use of the system. Studies by the FAA have found that business jets impose a far greater financial burden on the ATC system than is recovered from the fuel taxes they pay. This amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations that can afford to own and operate jet aircraft.
But user fees are not merely an anti-elite message vehicle. They’re actually a good-government reform that would provide a foundation for stable ATC funding. There are people across the political spectrum, inside the industry, and even in the general aviation community, who agree with this. As does McCain:
The funding provided by AIR-21 is not a permanent solution because the law extends only through Fiscal Year 2003. In addition, money will not solve all the problems of the ATC system. I am hopeful that the increased funding and management reforms provided by AIR-21 will improve the system in the short-term. However, I believe we are at a point where we have to look toward long-term solutions. Transferring the ATC system to some type of non-government entity may provide more flexibility to make changes to the system as needed.
He was proven right. In 2003, Congress renewed the FAA with more funding, but it has failed for two years now to pass another reauthorization, holding the agency’s funding hostage with continuing resolutions. An independent stream of revenue that is linked to system use is vital for ATC in the United States. Where does McCain stand in today’s user fees debate? According to Popular Mechanics, “While the [FAA reauthorization] bill was still in committee, McCain voted against an amendment to eliminate the new $25-per-flight user fee on general aviation.”
Even before 2001, and going back at least to 1995, McCain was a strong proponent of user fees. In May 2000, his legendary temper flared during testimony by Steve Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the main general aviation lobby in Washington. According to AOPA:
In a terse exchange, McCain pushed the user fees proposal. Boyer answered that the aviation trust fund should be funded by the taxes that pilots and aircraft owners pay when they purchase aviation fuel.
McCain then asked [FAA Management Advisory Council] nominees representing the airlines and pilot unions if they were for user fees. Both supported a “performance based” system that would charge a user fee every time an aircraft used ATC services.
Because of AOPA’s continued opposition to user fees, McCain then told Boyer, “I seriously question your qualifications for this council.”
McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has a different perspective on user fees. In Alaska, general aviation is an essential part of the transportation grid. AOPA notes that “[i]n May 2007, she signed a resolution in opposition to the FAA’s plan to increase avgas taxes, impose user fees, and slash airport funding. AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association had worked together to move the resolution through the Alaska legislature.” It doesn’t hurt that Todd Palin, Alaska’s “first dude,” owns a Piper Super Cub (after which one of the Palin daughters is named) and is an AOPA member.
In a 2000 questionnaire — McCain did not fill out a questionnaire this year — for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots’ union, McCain lays out his positions at the time on international aviation agreements. Since McCain is a strong proponent of free-trade agreements, I suspect that he hasn’t changed his position on these issues, but I will happily post an update if he has.
The main bone of contention in the current round of U.S.-Europe open skies negotiations is increasing the amount of control a foriegn investor can have in a U.S. airline. The European standard is 49 percent; ours is 25 percent. McCain argued that “this policy should be relaxed. Consistent with the goals of airline deregulation, liberalized competition and entry in the market should enhance service and lower air fares. I have sponsored legislation in the past that would increase the permissible level of foreign investment from
25 to 49 percent.”
McCain also supported permitting cabotage — a non-U.S. airline’s carrying paying passengers between U.S. cities — which is another concession eagerly sought by the Europeans in the latest round of talks. According to McCain, “Foreign airlines could provide much needed competition on domestic airline routes, which would result in lower fares for the benefit of consumers. Increased operations of foreign airlines in the U.S. would also promote employment opportunities for U.S. citizens.”
The publications I’ve linked to here should provide some insights into the times John McCain has taken stands on controversial aviation policy matters. (On matters such as final votes on past FAA reauthorization bills, or age 65 retirement for pilots, McCain has joined the vast congressional consensus.) Here, as with Barack Obama’s aviation platform, I’ll continue to update you on the candidates’ views on these important issues.