AOPA, NATA Battle Over FBO Costs

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Historical allies AOPA and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) are now pitted against each other in an unusual battle over airport access, fuel costs and fees. AOPA, along with “seven affected pilots,” has filed a Part 13 complaint with the FAA against three Signature FBOs in Key West, Florida; Asheville, North Carolina; and Waukegan, Illinois. A Part 13 complaint requests the FAA to investigate potential threats to the operation of the aviation system. AOPA alleges the three FBOs virtually control GA traffic at those airports and is disputing “egregious FBO pricing practices” that are gouging its members. It says it picked those three FBOs because they’ve received the most complaints about them. “At each of these airports, a single FBO controls all transient ramp space and fuel services, which means each FBO possesses a monopoly position and significant power over access to a public airport,” the organization said in a news release. “AOPA believes each FBO has failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect the airport for public use through reasonable and fair pricing.” NATA, which represents FBOs and other aviation-related businesses, normally supports the various calls to action that AOPA and other GA groups launch in defense of GA, and seemed to be caught off guard by the complaints.

In a statement issued shortly after AOPA filed the complaints, NATA said that AOPA doesn’t understand the changing dynamics of the aviation service business and nobody is trying to gouge anyone. “The assertions made in these complaints reflect a misunderstanding of a number of key points related to the economics of aviation businesses: the pricing of aeronautical services, industry consolidation, and the airport sponsor-tenant relationship,” stated NATA Executive Vice President Bill Deere. He said AOPA’s interpretation of the FAA mandate of airports and their businesses supplying services at reasonable prices doesn’t stand up. “The FBO services market is and remains a very competitive industry,” Deere said. “Those within the aviation industry fully understand that FBOs compete vigorously with each other on price, service, and quality of facilities.”

AOPA maintains that FBO pricing is a serious issue for GA because it affects access to facilities that receive federal money and are supposed to be generally accessible to the public. “Our members have spoken and they’re tired of being forced to pay for services they don’t want, ask for or need,” said AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker. “It’s all about price transparency and reasonable access to places that are supposed to be public. We also believe that promoting more competition will help relieve some of the ongoing problems our members continually face at these locations.” He said AOPA believes the FAA needs to help local airport authorities to curb excessive charges by their FBOs.

Well, fuel prices are usually a pretty good gauge of what to expect when the rampy rolls out the carpet by the aircraft and while Key West, Asheville and Waukegan certainly charge above-average prices for 100LL, the adjective egregious is kind of relative. All three Signature FBOs at those locations charge between $6.50 and $7.00 per gallon for full-serve 100LL and only Waukegan offers a self-serve option at $5.99. All those prices are well above the average of $4.82-$4.89 in the regions established by 100LL.com, where we compared prices. They are also well below the truly breathtaking fuel prices at some other airports we checked, like $8.31 a gallon at Baltimore-Washington International, also a Signature franchise and also the only avgas supplier. But even toney Westchester County, which has plenty of competition between five FBOs, including a Signature, vying for New York’s flying folks, is about $7 for 100LL. Our “investigation,” such as it was, dealt only with 100LL prices and didn’t look at tie-downs, hangar space or a burger and fries, which may have factored into AOPA’s definition of “egregious.”

For AOPA, the higher-than-average prices and service fees at the three FBOs are a threat to access and airport availability to GA pilots and they want the FAA to see if that puts the airports in violation of the grant assurances to ensure “reasonable access” to the fields when they accepted federal money for improvements. “Egregious pricing practices deter and restrict airport access and severely affect all aspects of general aviation from flight training to recreation,” AOPA said in its statement. “Unreasonable pricing practices can also have grave effects on surrounding communities. By pricing out certain GA traffic, FBOs are harming local economies. Pilots and travelers who usually access these communities are scared away by the FBO’s sky-high prices.”

NATA says there are bigger fish to fry in GA than the price of gas. “This action is disappointing, coming at a time when the general aviation community is confronting a serious effort to privatize our nation’s air traffic control system,” said NATA President Martin H. Hiller.  “General aviation, as we know it in this nation, is under a real threat.  We need to stand united right now and not be concerned with distractions like this."

Comments (4)

You are indeed missing the point. These FBOs are now starting to charge "facility" charges and "security" fees for doing nothing more than parking and walking into the building. And the charges are not nominal. For example, Atlantic in KABQ charges a $40 facility charge and a $7 security fee. I landed there, made arrangements to park the plane overnight, and then left the next afternoon. The overnight ramp fee was $20. Then the extra $47, and with other items, it was $75 plus to park overnight, get a drink of water, and use the bathroom. I am a customer of theirs at my local airport, but they would not waive any fees. The NATA comments are pure hogwash. These FBOs spent a lot of money buying out competitors, and part of cost-recovery plans are high facility use fees and ramp fees. At some locations these fees are reported to exceed $100 for the privilege of parking and having lunch. Fortunately in KABQ there is a superior service provider who doesn't choose to rake their customers over the coals, but many airports do not have that option. Further, these are undisclosed charges that are not posted anywhere, so pilots are bushwhacked at the least the first time they stop there.l

Posted by: Gary Risley | September 1, 2017 5:40 PM    Report this comment

Agree with Gary--the problem isn't so much the fuel, it's the control of all access to the ramp and parking at the airport. If my only option to use a public airport is to pay ramp, security, and facility fees to the monopoly FBO, the airport hardly seems public.

KMKC, for example, is fantastic in this regard. A full service FBO is available, but city tie downs are as well. If you want rental cars, hangars, shower, and a fancy flight planning room, feel free to use the FBO. But, if you're just in and out, or being picked up, the city tie downs are a fantastic option.

Posted by: Steve Miller | September 1, 2017 8:49 PM    Report this comment

As the situation in Worcester County demonstrates there is only one way to promise fair and reasonable pricing: Each public airport must have free ramp and free passage to the aircraft, with no services whatsoever (except public bathrooms which are a safety issue). Only charge is nominal charge by airport owner. Yolu even provide your own ropes for tie-down.

ONLY when this is done the FBO's will sell services on the merit rather than by runway robbery. If as they say they are competitive - let them show it by supporting such choice.

Posted by: Shalom Wertsberger | September 4, 2017 9:30 AM    Report this comment

I believe all "Public Use Airports" should have a No Fee Public portion of tie down spots and a way to access the ramp without having to deal with the FBO. If I am flying into a Public Use Airport to pick up a friend to go for lunch or drop off. Why should I be forced to buy fuel or other services? Yes the FAA should step in for that reason and force just that. Free Access to the airport ramp. I live in Florida. Most cities and county's require Public Access Ramps to walk to the beach. Because the beach is Public Use. Public Use Airports should be afforded the same access.

Posted by: Michael Davis | September 6, 2017 7:12 AM    Report this comment

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