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Winner Aviation Represents Industry Before Congress in User Fee Battle

Proving that one person can make a difference in the nation’s capital, Rick Hale, president and CEO of NBAA Member Company Winner Aviation, traveled to Washington, DC this summer from the small town of Vienna, OH, to lend his voice to the growing chorus of opposition to aviation system user fees.

Hale, who originally wanted to be an airline pilot but decided to pursue a career in general aviation after he took a temporary job at the FBO he now heads, testified before the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures on August 1, telling Congress that small companies like his, which make up the majority of business aviation enterprises, would be adversely affected by the imposition of aviation user fees.

The Embry-Riddle graduate reiterated general aviation’s willingness to contribute more to the development of "NextGen," the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System, but he said the logical and efficient way to do that would be through adjustments to existing aviation fuel taxes, not through the creation of a new bureaucracy to assess and collect an assortment of onerous user fees.

Small Company, Big Impact

Hale, who had never previously testified before Congress, told the subcommittee how his 57 full-time and eight part-time employees provide an array of vital aviation services for companies in the greater Youngstown area. "As the only fixed base operator on the airport, we are the front door to the community," said Hale.

Located at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, Winner Aviation is the former anchor location of Beckett Aviation, one of largest FBOs of the 1950s and an early pioneer in the fractional ownership concept. Although small in size, Winner Aviation is the major airframe, engine and avionics maintenance and repair center in the region. The company is factory authorized to work on Honeywell TPE331 turboprops and TFE731 turbofans; Hawker Beechcraft, Twin Commander, Mitsubishi MU-2, Lancair, Diamond and Cessna airplanes; and a variety of avionics systems. In addition, Winner handles all aircraft on the airport.

One of the most valued of Winner Aviation’s services is the on-demand transportation it provides through its King Air. Winner’s charter customers are mostly mid-size businesses that use the twin turboprop to get to destinations that typically are within a 300-mile radius of Youngstown but "off the beaten path, places that the airlines don’t serve," explained Hale.

Because our clients use general aviation to do business outside of Youngstown, their companies are able to remain in Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. That’s important at a time when our part of the country is losing businesses at an alarming rate," explained Hale.

"Since our local area has very little commercial airline service, Winner Aviation operates an FBO, which helps customers with aircraft fueling, de-icing and handling," Hale said. "Our company also handles cargo, facilitates life flights, moves federal prisoners and provides other services.

"We also do a lot of maintenance, including engine repair, structural maintenance, and avionics installation and repairs," Hale added. "It’s the kind of work that keeps highly skilled, college-educated technicians in the local community." Hale says his people are among the most qualified in the industry. Educated, dedicated and diligent, they could work anywhere, but the attrition rate at Winner Aviation is very low because many employees have family ties to the area, and they appreciate not having to work in a major metropolitan area.

In short, the people of Winner Aviation keep general aviation aircraft flying in eastern Ohio. Hale declared, "These aircraft are critical to the survival of my company and the companies we serve. My story is a typical one – every member of Congress has businesses in their states that are like mine.

"You don’t often hear about companies like Winner Aviation when people talk about business aviation," Hale added. "Instead, people tend to focus on large Fortune 500 companies. That’s unfortunate, since the business aviation community is made up mostly of small and mid-size businesses like mine."

Stay the Course on FAA Funding

Although Winner Aviation is a small business, Hale said his company, like hundreds of others across the country, stands willing to contribute its appropriate share to upgrading the ATC system.

"The general aviation community supports aviation system modernization, and is ready to help pay for it," Hale told Congress. "But to do that, general aviation operators want to pay at the pump through fuel taxes – not through user fees or new taxes. The fuel tax is an easy and effective way to pay for use of the system. Taxes are paid when the aircraft is fueled up, and there’s no paperwork, collection agents or bureaucracy involved."

“ One of the most valued of Winner Aviation’s services is the on-demand transportation it provides through its King Air. ”

Hale told the House subcommittee that he considers the House version of FAA funding legislation (HR 2881) a practical way to fund ATC system modernization because general aviation would provide additional money for financing the agency and aviation system modernization. At the same time, it would let operators keep paying at the pump.

"It makes no sense to me why user fees or other untested funding formulas should take the place of the simple payment method general aviation is now using," Hale declared.

The Canadian User-Fee Experience

To illustrate why user fees are not the way to finance aviation system improvements, Hale recounted the experience of a fellow aircraft operator – Martin’s Pastry Shoppe, an NBAA Member in Chambersburg, PA, that flies two turboprops and two piston-powered aircraft. Jim Martin, the president of Martin’s Pastry Shoppe, told Hale, "We have had experience with user fees in Canada, and they are awful. The invoices are usually wrong and take two to three trips through our accounting department, and NavCanada’s accounting department, to settle. We spend a great deal of administrative time and costs to process the bills."

Hale predicted that Martin’s experience will become all too familiar if user fees are adopted in the U.S. "Staggering administrative costs for business aircraft operators will become a fact of life. Why would anyone want to put this administrative burden on these companies?" asked Hale. "Our small businesses strive to avoid red tape and inefficiencies. User fees will open the door to those very challenges."

Alluding to the airlines’ attempt to shift $2 billion of ATC system costs to general aviation, Hale said, "I respectfully request that Congress oppose user fees or any other measures that would take money from businesses in the general aviation community to give another segment of the industry a tax break."

He concluded, "If Congress needs additional revenue for aviation system modernization, the general aviation community is prepared to contribute. But please allow these operators to contribute solely through the fuel tax."

Returning to Everyday Challenges

For testifying before Congress, Rick Hale, along with fellow aircraft operator Richard Shine of Manitoba Recycling, received NBAA’s American Spirit Award during the Association’s recent Annual Meeting & Convention in Atlanta. Upon receiving the citation, Hale modestly said, "I very much appreciate the award, but I testified to serve the industry."

NBAA officials are grateful that the leaders of these two typical Member Companies took time out from their busy schedules to come to Washington to testify, but part of Hale’s motivation was to thank NBAA for the support it has provided his company through the years.

When asked if being an NBAA Member has been worthwhile, Hale said, "We are absolutely getting our money’s worth. We benefit from the communication and representation we have in Washington. I don’t get a phone call every day from [NBAA President and CEO] Ed Bolen, but I do feel I have good representation and strong leadership from NBAA."

That type of support enables Hale to focus on the challenges of running his business. The local economy is not as vibrant as he would like, and there are certainly plenty of challenges to any general aviation operation.

But Hale also sees the potential for growth in Youngstown. "If we could build new facilities here, we actually would have a lower cost structure than most other areas in the Northeast, Great Lakes or Mid-Atlantic, and that could be a potential competitive advantage in attracting turboprop and turbofan aircraft to this area for maintenance."