State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, is sponsoring a bill that he hopes will spark meaningful conversation among his Cape and Islands constituents regarding climate change impacts caused by the aviation industry.
Island aviation officials have voiced their concern over the bill which, when initially filed, sought to impose a $1,000 fee on any personal, corporate-owned, or charter rental aircraft that touch down.
The central worries raised by officials at Martha’s Vineyard Airport mostly relate to federal aviation laws which prohibit revenue diversion from airports for anything other than aviation operations.
This bill, as it’s currently written, would divert 50 percent of the funds raised from the aircraft fees to a fund that would help repair state infrastructure that has been affected or damaged by climate change. The airport would be able to keep the other 50 percent.
Cyr explained that, in drafting the legislation, he initially defined several exemptions for certain types of flights, such as those intended for pilot training, sightseeing tours, benevolent travel initiatives like Angel Flights, and smaller Cessna-style aircraft.
“It’s clear now that those exemptions need to be expanded pretty broadly,” Cyr said.
Additionally, any aircraft registered in Massachusetts or owned by a Massachusetts resident would be exempt from the fee.
He added that any planes operating on sustainable aviation fuel or any electric aircraft would also be exempt from the fee, as its intent is to focus on the most polluting methods and industries of aviation.
“Any landing fee should probably be prorated given the size of the aircraft,” Cyr said. “These are all changes that we support and intend to suggest when the bill comes before committee for a hearing.”
In order for such a law to be implemented, should the bill pass, Cyr said certain areas of federal law and Federal Aviation Administration regulations would have to be altered in order to accommodate the revenue diversion element.
Cyr stressed that the legislative process is inherently deliberative, and the conversation surrounding these existential climate threats is only the beginning.
“We are constitutionally structured to be deliberative — where you take an idea, you are applying it, there is a committee process, and you get feedback. There are about 8 to 9,000 bills filed every legislative session, and about 10 percent of those bills actually make it into law,” Cyr said.
For those who are anxious about what this bill could mean for small scale air travel, Cyr said, the bill was never directed at smaller-scale aviation, and significant federal barriers will have to be overcome before the law can be passed (meaning a great deal of checks and balances, and more time spent in deliberation).
“Changes at the federal level will require a heck of a lot of time and work to do,” Cyr said.
As Cyr receives more feedback from stakeholders, he is taking all suggestions and concerns into account, and determining where additional exemptions or alterations may be needed.
Due to COVID-19 swamping the statehouse with relief bills and other essential legislation, Cyr said, the beginning of the conversation surrounding the aviation climate bill “honestly, was a casualty of COVID.”
He said the legislative session traditionally ends on July 31 of an election year, but this past session was extended to January 5, in order to finish the COVID-related business.
“We actually went until about 4 am on January 6, and then we were sworn in for a new session that day,” Cyr said.
During the bill-filing session, Cyr said, he and his staff members were deeply focused on increasing vaccine access, which made it difficult to respond to all the correspondence related to the aviation bill.
“This was very much a result of being so overwhelmed in responding to COVID-19. In the time we had to file bills, we were averaging about 600 voicemails every 10 to 12 days. I have a staff of five, so there is no way we could get back to everyone,” Cyr said. “For anyone who feels they weren’t included in conversation during the initial drafting of this bill, I very much apologize. That was never my intent.”
He noted that the intent of the bill has always been to encourage tough conversations surrounding the climate crisis and how the aviation industry is a significant contributor of carbon emissions.
With vehicle transportation, Cyr said the path to reducing emissions is clear with the popularization and incentivization of electric vehicles. But aviation should also be at the forefront of the climate conversation, he said.
“Climate change is one of the issues I hear most about from my constituents,” Cyr said. “Aviation has to be a part of that conversation. Is a landing fee really the most efficient way to go? Probably not — we are probably talking about some form of carbon pricing. But we owe it to ourselves to make sure that all the options are on the table, as we are figuring out how to adapt to the most existential threat to our way of life in this region.”