For all of the turn-of-the-millennium buzz about the power and efficiency of e-business, most companies still depend on real-life "bricks and mortar” facilities. And doing business in the real world presents real challenges, often due to the distances between employees, products and customers. Setting up a new Web site can't solve these problems. Instead, many small-business owners began to operate a small plane that let their company reach out to clients in new markets and connect employees across vast distances. Stories like these are vastly under-reported across the country. Commercial airlines serve fewer than 10 percent of the 5,300 airports in America. Small aircraft and their operators serve the rest, making up what is known as the general aviation industry. Today, these small aircraft serve as a lifeline for many American communities, contributing more than $150 billion to the nation's economy and employing more than 1 million workers. Two years ago, the nation's commercial airlines declared war on these local economies, attempting to saddle general aviation with hundreds of millions of dollars in new "user fees” — surcharges imposed through a new federal bureaucracy on every flight. Aviation industry analysts have two theories as to why the airlines would do this to fellow aviators. First, the airlines need a fall guy for the criticism they are receiving for interminable delays and shoddy customer service. By trying to blame small-aircraft pilots for congestion and delays, the airlines are hoping to create a new foil. It's doubtful this ploy will work. The Department of Transportation and all other respected aviation experts reject the big airlines' assertions, pointing out that congestion and delays are largely due to the airlines' over-scheduling practices and some of their labor practices. The other explanation is that a new user-fee bureaucracy is a mendacious bait-and-switch tactic — a vessel for the carriers to shift much of their cost for use of air traffic control system (ATC) to small aircraft. Indeed, early versions of airline-sponsored legislation contained provisions that cut the airlines' taxes by $1 billion, shifting much of that amount to small airplanes. For the most part, the House and Senate have rejected the airlines' proposal. Instead, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that modernization of the air-traffic control system is the top priority, and that the best way for general aviation to help fund that modernization effort is by increasing the efficient and environmentally progressive fuel taxes they already pay. In fact, pilots in the general aviation community have expressed their support for congressional legislation that raises their fuel taxes by up to 65 percent to help support the transformation of the nation's ATC system. Just as the commercial airlines play a vital part in the American economy, so too do the small aircraft in general aviation play a central role in preserving a way of life in small towns. All parties should stop pointing fingers and instead work to provide the tax revenues necessary to make the airways even safer and more efficient. Bolen is president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association. Boyer is president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Small airplanes line up for a race at Wiley Post Airport. PAUL HELLSTERN, The Oklahoman