ATC Fees: EAA Cuts Its Losses
If there’s an aviation version of realpolitik, we saw it on Friday when EAA announced it’s caving in to FAA demands that the association pay for air traffic services at AirVenture. This decision will be bitterly disappointing for many members, while others will just accept it as the cost of doing business and an inevitability. It’s no secret that some of us in aviation think we should pay for such extended FAA services such as those at AirVenture and Sun ‘n Fun.
I’m not among them, so mark me down as disappointed. While I’m not philosophically opposed in principle to special interests paying for what they use, what the FAA is doing at AirVenture (and Sun ‘n Fun) is basically a protection racket and government malfeasance under the guise of being strapped by its own regulations. Here’s why: Despite the fact that Oshkosh is a contract tower, the FAA has heretofore insisted that only it can provide the overflow services that AirVenture requires. And since they do this the FAA way, that means about twice as many bodies as a private contractor would require to do the same work and hence EAA, and by extension, its members, get stuck with a bill of over $400,000. This has been described as paying for the same services twice and that’s exactly what it appears to be for reasons I’ll get to.
If there’s any bright side to this sordid mess, it’s that EAA extracted from the FAA an understanding that if it can find a better deal in the future, it can pursue that with FAA support. Furthermore, the agreement stipulates that EAA will be involved in oversight and reviews to control costs related to ATC services. But is this a hollow victory? In the very next sentence in EAA’s announcement, Jack Pelton said he doesn’t see contracting the AirVenture ATC services as viable for the foreseeable future. Foreseeable is a long time or at least through 2022.
Now for the realpolitik part. It’s obvious from the detailed question section that EAA provided that the good fight we thought EAA had engaged in with the FAA was evolving into a suicide mission. EAA’s petition for relief in the U.S. Seventh District Appeals Court, regardless of its merit, placed AirVenture 2014 in jeopardy. And that’s only four months away. In its statement, EAA essentially said it most needed stable, predictable services so it negotiated the best deal it could and got a long-term agreement. Honestly, I can’t say I’d have done any different. At some point, reality rules.
Many smaller airshows in the same circumstance were hoping EAA’s larger resources would carry the day in their behalf. Not gonna happen. If any of those airports have towers now and need additional services for an event, they’ll either have to pay the FAA or cancel the events. Some will do the latter. Those that don’t have towers should just run like Copperstate does, with no FAA help and an advisory traffic service.
In the current poisonous political environment, the notion that one of government’s jobs is to provide basic infrastructure for safety and economic growth has been lost. Air traffic control is basic infrastructure. It’s completely misguided to say that at AirVenture, ATC is for the pleasure of a spoiled bunch of rich hobbyists flying their airplanes into an annual summer bash. For the Oshkosh area alone, the regional governments estimate an impact of more that $100 million a year which translates to jobs and economic growth.
And for hundreds of companies, at a time when the industry has been in the tank for almost six years, AirVenture represents a critical part of their marketing and outreach plans. More investment, more jobs, more growth. GA, as an industry, shouldn’t have to apologize to anyone nor be overcharged for infrastructure the government is supposed to provide. Although we can’t put numbers on it, it’s probably true that user fees have a far greater chilling effect in lost business—including taxes—than anything the government might hope to recover in levying them. For the dwindling few in GA, the psychological effect alone is enough for many to pull the plug.
What should have happened? First of all, I am skeptical of EAA’s claim that a full-up contractor couldn’t provide ATC services at AirVenture or couldn’t do it more cheaply than the FAA. I don’t have the numbers so I guess I have to give EAA the benefit of the doubt, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. When I spoke to George Cline of AirBoss—a contract company—a year ago about this, he said his company could staff the show and do so economically. He reaffirmed that today. In the aviation press, we’ve fallen into the habit of writing isn’t-that-amazing stories about all the pink-shirted controllers at OSH and perhaps the resulting hagiography implies that there has be scores of them to make it work. But times change. Insurance might be an issue, but events riskier than AirVenture get insurance, so I’m not buying that as a showstopper.
What it would really take, then, is someone in the FAA with the will to make this work rather than the usual knee-jerk reaction to find ways that it won’t. That would mean beginning from the premise that EAA would find its own contractor, determine its own level of services required, negotiate the price and have the FAA willingly standing by to provide assistance at every step, including issuing the temporary tower operator certs and other details.
Maybe that’s where EAA sort of ended up with its current agreement. But to make it work in spirit, someone in the agency would have to own the AirVenture challenge and be its undying champion. Of course, idiotcracy in government doesn’t work that way. They don’t have rainmakers; they have bureaucrats who hand things off to other bureaucrats who just retired or transferred to the next big three-letter cash cow program.
What was so inspiring about EAA’s decision to take this to court was the sheer, hell-for-leather audacity of it. Finally, here was an alphabet with a bone in its teeth. While I fully understand the decision EAA made and I’ll remain a loyal member—and you should, too--it sure would have been nice for at least something in aviation to end with a roar rather than the way it always does, with a whimper.