AVmail: April 22, 2013
Letter of the Week: Managing the Message
I planned an FAA Safety Team seminar on the subject of non-towered operations at towers closed by sequestration. The speakers listed would be FAA Safety Team members, local ATC controllers, and FSDO inspectors.
The document was released to 8,000-plus pilots in the Tampa Bay area by FAASafety.gov around April 1. On April 3, I got a phone call from FAA Safety Team management advising me to revise the notice and remove any mention of FAA involvement. I expressed my extreme displeasure with that direction, but I revised the notice. Two days later I got a call from the same manager telling me that FAA HQ wanted me to change the title and remove any mention of the word "sequestration." In addition, I was advised to not discuss budgetary items or sequestration with pilots.
I cannot detail here what I said to the manager because a censor would redact them. I refused to change the title. I also threatened to resign as a Lead Team Rep (been one for 25 years) because I will not let the FAA trample on my First Amendment rights. The manager asked me not to resign, especially when I told him the next call I was making would be to the media.
The FAA is not paying a penny for the countless hours I have devoted to the FAA Safety Program. I refuse to be intimidated by faceless Washington HQ types who cannot stand the heat brought on by their total disregard for aviation safety.
The title of the seminar was revised without me. It was held last week with 66 pilots attending. We discussed everything that the FAA told me not to discuss.
This attempt by FAA HQ to manage the story cannot be tolerated. That's why I am writing this letter.
The Real Price of Fuel
It's a well-written article, and there are some thought-provoking concerns in your article about FBOs vs. sponsor fuel sales, but some alignment of facts is in order.
Phil Solomon's concern regarding the FAA's minimum standards and government entities operating under different rules misses some points. First, minimum standards for an airport are not written by the FAA. They're written by the airport's sponsor (town, city, county, or authority) and reviewed by the FAA. And yes, the sponsor is required to live up to those same rules, although enforcing that requires going back to the same FAA office that approved the rules. So, it's a little convoluted, but in the end, it depends on a strong and vibrant airport community to act in concert to ensure everyone is working to the benefit of the community as a whole.
Another issue impacting this problem is the lack of familiarity with aviation on the part of airport sponsors. Most local governments don't have any idea what makes an airport tick, so again, it's the aviation community that needs to pull together to keep things headed in the right direction. I'm familiar with the challenges of Solomon's home airport, as our former airport manager started his career at that field. We as aviators need to understand that we have unique infrastructure requirements that are not part of the typical skillset in a county or town public works department.
At the end of the day, however, Phil's basic premise is correct and merits discussion. Each individual airport sponsor will act in its own best interest and it may not be to the benefit of general aviation as a whole. It's incumbent on the GA community to stay involved in local government issues so that these things can be addressed.
chairman, Leesburg (VA) Executive Airport
One observation: The difference in fuel prices in my area between my full-service FBO and a smaller, close-by city-owned self-service fuel dispenser is not 20 cents as the article suggests; it is $3.25. For me, that is a $200 premium to use my FBO on a fill-up.
I already pay my FBO about $200 a month just to park. My FBO, which is currently charging $8.23 a gallon, does not offer rental aircraft, maintenance services for my aircraft, or flight instruction. Therefore, I simply do not accept the premise of the article the author is presenting.
It's an interesting point of view, but flawed. Wanting the aviation community to pay for someone sitting at a desk on a rainy day with nothing going on is not going to revive general aviation. That does not improve the flying experience, only adds to the cost, just like so many FAA regs.
FBOs need to offer services pilots want at a price they can live with if they want to thrive. More rental airplanes will not revive GA either, at least not if the rentals are 40-year-old Cessnas and Pipers that look and feel like 40-year-old airplanes and cost $150 or more per hour to rent.
You can rent a $30,000 car for $100 per day and put unlimited miles on it. Why should a fully depreciated airplane that can be bought for the same money cost $300 for a two-hour flight?
Peter van Schoonhoven
I read with much interest your story about fuel prices and unfair competition. While I can certainly empathize with Solomon's concern, it would not drive me to pay higher prices for fuel just to save his business.
I am based at KPDK, and for years we had to buy fuel on our way back into the area because our only choices on the field were $7-8 per gallon fuel from large FBOs. Now we have a self-serve pump selling fuel for $5.60 a gallon. I don't know what Solomon's mark-up on fuel must be, but when one retailer can apparently make money selling for nearly $2 less per gallon than his full-service competitor, I find it hard to believe that Solomon cannot be competitive and still make some money on fuel.
One thing is certain through all of this. If fuel costs do not abate, there will be fewer and fewer pilots as a consequence. Correspondingly, there will be a reduction in demand for fuel, and I would expect an increase in its cost due to a commensurate reduction in supply infrastructure (i.e., fewer pumping stations and fuel trucks).
I think it's in everyone's best interest to find a way to keep pilots flying. While I empathize with Solomon's dilemma, I don't think the solution is to ask pilots to continue paying more for fuel than is really warranted in order to subsidize the FBO's operations.
Several years ago, I made a fuel stop, and when I entered the ramp area, the first thing I saw was a large sign directing me to self-service fuel. So, wanting to save a bit of money, I steered over to it and filled up.
Meanwhile, my wife went over to the very nice FBO and asked for directions to the ladies room. She was told that it was outside, right next to the fuel pump I had just used.
Not understanding the message, I went to the FBO to ask why my wife had been directed to a very small mobile home, which contained a very smelly toilet. The FBO attendant told me that was the one that the airport authority made available for pilots who purchased fuel from them. That's when I learned that I had not purchased the fuel from the FBO.
I sent a letter to the airport authority expressing my opinion on the unfairness of them competing with one of their tenants. I got a telephone call from them that I thought was shockingly indifferent. Needless to say, your article is right on target as to what customers can expect in the way of service from public fueling operations.
Medical Impact of LSA
With articles such as "Light Sport Counts Up Its Impact," the chances of easing the third-class medical become more and more distant. The number one rule of any FAA/AOPA decision (hopefully after safety) is "follow the money."
The FAA could lessen the potential for negative affects from contract tower closures by providing a substitute for those towers. In my view, the biggest benefit of having a control tower is the ability for the controller to convey pertinent traffic information to the pilot.
The FAA can mitigate this loss by enabling more widespread use of ADS-B traffic information by changing one agency policy. The FAA currently has ADS-B ground-based transceivers (GBTs) configured to broadcast traffic only when an airplane with a qualified ADS-B Out system is detected. Those "qualified" systems are still very costly to install; however, portable ADS-B receivers are becoming very common, at much less cost than the installed systems.
The FAA could change policy and "throw the doors wide open" to participation by allowing portable systems, with both in and out, to participate. The FAA technical types will say, "Absolutely not! A portable system can't be guaranteed to be as good as ASR" -- but it could be done very easily, at least for VFR participants.
So what if the positioning isn't "certified"? My Garmin 496 provides a level of accuracy more than sufficient for the pilot in another airplane to discern relative position and yield an improvement in situational awareness. Is a portable system more accurate, with better integrity than ASR positioning? Maybe or maybe not, but it's certainly an improvement over basic see-and-avoid.