FAA's AirVenture Gouge
Let's say your airplane just came out of annual and the shop hands you a single-line invoice for $9,307 dollars. Nothing is itemized; no parts or labor breakout, no list of what was repaired. Would you pay it? Not just no, but hell no.
Yet that's about what happened when EAA decided last week to knuckle under to the FAA's demand to pay for controllers at AirVenture this year. Not that it had a choice. Following up on this story with EAA, I asked the association if the FAA presented them with an itemized summary of expenses. Nope. For the princely sum of about $450,000, the FAA demand to EAA says the money will pay for air traffic control services and technical operational support. In addition, EAA is expected to pay for controller travel, per diem, overtime to backfill slots at towers from where the controllers are based and, I love this one, "administrative supplies." Paper clips, paper and pink shirts, one supposes.
What's especially galling about this is that if you have to pay for something, you should at least know precisely where the costs are and what you're paying for. I'll further generalize this by noting that the FAA does a terrible job of explaining its costs to the GA flying public and elucidating why it has to charge users for what it has heretofore provided as part of its general charter.
Why is this too much to ask? In the blog last week, we had a good back-of-the-envelope calculation that suggests the FAA is overcharging for its incremental ATC services. But over the weekend, I checked with a friend whose a former controller and still involved in providing ATC services at airshows and events. Based on upper tier controllers being paid about $70 an hour, plus overtime costs back at the home field and per diem, he thinks it costs about $1000 a day to keep an FAA controller on duty at Wittman, times 50 or 60, plus the travel and you can reach a total of over $400,000.
But that's the FAA gilded lilly cost. Does the operation really need 50 or 60 controllers for the entire week and why can't EAA get an itemized invoice to whittle down what it has to pay? Increasingly, companies like AirBoss Inc., a private firm offering ATC services, look attractive. I spoke to the company's George Cline about this and he said AirBoss can find the insurance, although it's expensive, and has the staff--all AirVenture and Sun 'n Fun veterans--to run ATC at OSH. He says they could do it for half the price of the FAA's bid or less. The would use about 22 controllers compared to the FAA's 50 or 60.
I'm not sure it matters if EAA is making money on AirVenture or not. If the FAA can justify the need for the additional funds, it should be required—by Congressional fiat, if necessary—to show why. And it should have given EAA a lot more warning to work out alternatives, although the association should have known what was coming given that Sun 'n Fun had to pay its own way.Obviously, six weeks out from the event, that's not a realistic option. But it may be next year. Events like AirVenture and Sun 'n Fun will just have to wean themselves off of the FAA's heavy hand.
Under that scenario, as participants, we might have to learn a lesson we simply did not learn during the tower closure fiasco of last spring: more bodies in a control tower doesn't directly equate with safety. More money spent in our behalf doesn't necessarily prime the GA pump nor pave the way to a better, safer system. And increasingly, services we may think we want or need are better provided by means other than the federal government. Or not provided at all. Lately, I'm warming to the idea of not provided at all, which is why I favored the tower closures.
By the way, I continue to be philosophically agnostic on the principle of these marginal fees. If they're justified for a critical service, so be it. But show me the P&L. I so detest being a member of the knee-jerk tribe that opposes such things on ideological grounds. I'll pay my way, but I want to see the balance sheet, the very one that the FAA seems incapable of producing.
Next year, I hope EAA has more time to sort this out and come up with an air traffic control plan of its own. The rest of us are having to do more with less, why shouldn't the tower cab at Wittman? Are we at the point where we should thank the FAA for their efforts, but decline their over-priced proposal to provide same? I think we all know the answer.
A late addition over the weekend, Columbia Airport in California cancelled its father's day fly-in because it couldn't afford what the FAA was demanding for air traffic control services.