LET'S BE FAIR

THE PRESIDENT'S STAFF has displayed some sleight of hand in its fiscal 1988 budget proposal for the Federal Aviation Administration. It's asking Congress for a 20 percent increase in budget authority for FAA, and proposing a 12 percent increase in spending in the next fiscal year over estimated outlays for the current fiscal year, mostly for more inspectors and air traffic controllers, and new radars and other needed equipment.

That's great news for the industry and air travelers until you take a closer look. Most of the funds for this budget would come from industry user fees rather than general revenues. Proceeds from an existing 8 percent tax on airline tickets and 5 percent tax on air freight would be used to pay 75 percent of FAA's operating costs, including salaries, and 85 percent of all aviation-related costs, a much higher percentage than in years past.The airline industry is sure to object strongly to such budget manipulation. The taxes, which generate about $4 billion a year, were established to finance improvements to airports and the nation's air traffic control system, which is halfway through a major 10-year modernization program. Using the money for other purposes, such as FAA salaries, leaves less in the bank for capital projects.

The aviation trust fund that holds the proceeds of the special taxes currently has a huge surplus, about $4.2 billion, so there's plenty of money both for FAA operations and capital programs over the short run. Down the road, however, broader use of trust fund money could deplete the fund and require an increase in the taxes.

The administration argues that there's nothing unfair about asking the industry and its customers to foot the bill for FAA. The agency exists for the benefit of travelers. Its primary function is to ensure the safety and adequacy of the air transportation system.

We think that's shortsighted. Experience shows the benefits of airline service go well beyond the travelers who actually board the planes. Air service and economic development go hand in hand, and certainly it's in the interests of national security to maintain a first-rate airline industry.

Unfortunately, those arguments won't carry much weight in Washington with the government facing a mountain of debt and a persistent operating deficit. President Reagan has taken us into a user fee age, and it's likely to last for years to come since the alternatives, a general tax increase or cuts in programs that can't be supported by user fees, are politically unpalatable.

The emphasis now must be on making user fees as fair as possible. If the government is going to ask the airline industry and its customers to cover the majority of its aviation-related expenses, then it must take steps to ensure the taxes collected are spent in a timely fashion for the industry's benefit.

The huge surplus in the trust fund is proof that this has not been the case in the past. The administration and Congress have allocated money from the fund at a far slower pace than it has come in, and that's deplorable considering the need for new airport facilities and equipment.

New procedures for handling the funds are in order, to guarantee they get spent instead of held at Treasury. Some are suggesting they go directly to FAA, bypassing the normal congressional appropriations process. Others are calling for creation of a new, independent agency to collect the tax money and administer many of FAA's current programs.

Both ideas deserve serious consideration.

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