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US airport aid faces 'low ceiling' budget under Reagan recovery plan

Airlines and their passengers, not the general taxpayer, should shoulder more of the cost of running and improving the nation's airports. That, in a nutshell, is the underlying theme of the Reagan administration's bid for increased user taxes and for a variety of shifts and trims in the federal aviation budget.

The administration recommends a one-third or $1.8 billion trim over the next five years in development help to airports. This cut is based on the theory that the need to expand airport capacity is much less critical than when jumbo jets were introduced and that few accidents are closely tied to physical features of airports.

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President Reagan also aims to "defederalize" 42 of the nation's largest and busiest airports, thereby excluding them from getting the aid over the next five years. The rationale is that the larger airports are in a stronger financial position than others to make up the difference because they handle more traffic.

The idea of channeling development aid largely to medium and smaller airports was originally proposed during the Carter administration. Last year, the Senate passed a bill with a similar aim, and a new variation sponsored by Senate Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas has strong bipartisan support. However the airline industry, which last year supported the bill, now opposes it. So do most airport operators.

A key concern is where development money will come from. Airport operators doubt that airlines will agree to take on the added burden. One carrot the administration included in its final legislative package is a provision to allow airports barred from development aid to levy their own head taxes.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Darrell Trent says the administration expects that other airports may prefer that system and may decide to take the taxing power rather than the federal help. But any measure would need to pass the House as well as the Senate, and there has been little support for "defederalization" in any form from key aviation leaders there.

House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D) of California brands the proposal "a half-baked idea getting a free ride under a misleading name."

The aviation cuts include trimming the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) budget by 8 percent to $3.3 billion in fiscal 1981. In explaining the cuts, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis terms it a reflection of the administration's view that Washington long has tried to do too much in too many areas. Currently those who use the nation's airways pay about 40 percent of the FAA's budget. Reagan eventually hopes to hike this to about 85 percent.

One way to accomplish this is to broaden the scope of projects supported by the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. That fund, supported by taxes on those who directly use the nation's airways, was launched in 1970 to help airports make needed improvements ranging from new runways and terminals to improved navigational and safety devices. The airline industry, airport operators, and Congress historically have opposed any diversion of the fund from its development role to broader support of FAA operating costs. The latter role, they feel, is a legitimate one for user taxes. One Senate source predicts that the fight on the Hill will not be over funding levels or defederalization as much as over this philosophical point.

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One critical test may be the administration's proposal to tap at least some of the $3.7 billion surplus currently sitting in the trust fund to help with its The heart of the plan is a costly new computer system.

The trust fund basically is financed by federal taxes on passenger tickets and general aviation fuel. Both taxes will be increased under the Reagan plan but not by as much as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) originally proposed Feb. 18.

The ticket tax would move up from the current 5 percent to 6.5 percent in fiscal 1982. The tax on gasoline used by the general aviation fleet would go from the current 4 cents a gallon to 12 cents a gallon, then gradually increasing over the next five years to 36 cents a gallon. Earlier the administration had talked of a tax hike that would have amounted to an immediate 40 cents a gallon. In all, Washington's development help to airports will be scaled back to about $450 million is fiscal 1981, a cut of $272 million in projected spending. The administration, according to Trent, favors an increased emphasis on the development of satellite or "reliever" airports. These largely serve general aviation and commuter airlines. The aim is to help ease traffic at busier hub airports. There is strong and widespread support for that idea in the aviation community.

There is some concern in the industry that FAA personnel cuts could affect air traffic control employees. Trent says there will be a 3.6 percent reduction in personnel for the FAA, but it is not at all certain yet where those cuts would be made. He says some of them may have to come from other agencies under the DOT's jurisdiction.

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