Napa County Airport

The Napa County Airport tower survived federal budget cuts because it’s operated by Federal Aviation Administration staff, but another approximately 140 towers operated under FAA contracts were slated to close. J.L. Sousa/Register file photo

J.L. Sousa/Register

What happens in Washington, D.C., can have ripples reaching far and wide, impacting both the Napa Jet Center and the Napa County Airport.

That’s the message National Air Transportation Association President Tom Hendricks brought to a Napa town hall meeting Wednesday hosted by the Napa Jet Center. His organization represents aviation service businesses across the U.S. such as the Napa Jet Center.

A clear example of how national policy decisions can filter down to Napa County was Congress enacting sequestration cuts earlier this spring, Hendricks said.

The airport’s air traffic control tower was identified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a potential target for closure as the federal agency determined how to grapple with a 2 percent across-the-board spending cut.

The tower ultimately stayed open, as it’s operated by FAA staff, but another approximately 140 towers operated under FAA contracts were slated to close.

Hendricks said his organization helped lobby and work with the FAA to keep those towers open, but the solution was to take money from the agency’s airport improvement fund. It’s a stopgap solution, as the funding runs out Sept. 30, which is the end of the federal fiscal year.

If the FAA kept taking money out of the improvement fund for operations, it would be a detriment to long-term investments in airports and aviation infrastructure — which could also impact the Napa County Airport, he said.

For example, last fall the airport sought approval through a ballot measure to lift a voter-imposed weight restriction on the airport’s main runway, a necessary precursor as the airport plans to seek FAA funding to replace the runway.

“It was a good Band-Aid,” Hendricks said of the short-term funding fix. “But in the long-term we’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul. We’ve got to keep investing in all of our transportation needs.”

That led Hendricks to a broader point: Americans need to clearly define the expectations they have of their government, and then decide how to pay for that.

“As a country, we haven’t figured out what we want the role of government to be,” Hendricks said.

The FAA should be included in that discussion, he said. The agency is considering whether to re-organize its structure, and as part of that effort may change its revenue streams.

It could go from a tax on fuel to a flat fee structure, which Hendricks doesn’t support. He said he didn’t want to see pilots of small aircrafts put in situations where they might have to decide whether it’s worth the cost to use air traffic control in their flights.

In inclement weather, that could be dangerous, he said. His organization’s preference is to keep the existing system, and engage the FAA on whether to increase the tax on fuel.

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“When the weather is not great, we don’t want pilots to think before take off, ‘Should I spend $100 to contact air traffic control?’” Hendricks said. “We think it may have a negative impact on safety.”

He said the federal government has proved willing to listen in the past. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service announced it was reclassifying the agreements that companies that own aircraft charter services have with the third parties that operate the service. It would go from a private arrangement to being considered a commercial relationship, subjecting it to federal taxes.

Hendricks said his organization lobbied against the move, fearing it would hurt business owners’ bottom lines. The IRS eventually agreed, he said.

“It made some of these business plans very shaky,” Hendricks said. “We just kept having very good conversations with senior IRS officials. I want to be solution-oriented.”

Hendricks also acknowledged a need for a new generation of pilots to become interested in flying, and to engage in these policy issues. Napa County lost some of that with the closure of the Japan Airlines training facility and program, he said.

“We need young people to be inspired,” Hendricks said. “I want to make sure we’re passing this on to the younger generation.”

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