FAA's AirVenture Gouge

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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.

Comments (34)

It's pretty clear that the Feds want to get as many parties as they can on a pay per view program and that this is part of the conditioning of acceptance. ADSB is the enabler for fees as another example. Obama has been pushing user fees. Taxes aren't enough as they are too cumbersome and require approval of the legislature which is subject to voter influence. Fees can easily be imposed by agency fiat most conveniently and as we see here at most opportune times and without any explanation or recourse. The FAA should be taken out of the ATC business and it should be given over to contractors like Serco who do as good or better a job for a small fraction of the job. One only needs to contrast by example SQL with PAO for real examples of this. The EAA job was a robbery and I hope that EAA can in the future find a way out of using the FAA ATC in the future.

Posted by: FILL CEE | June 17, 2013 1:22 AM    Report this comment

This just reminds me that the FAA is part of USA inc., which is a company that also is supposed to be our government. It shows that it is quite obvious, that this company is in trouble, because they do not know how to balance a budget. We are held accountable for our taxes etc and now we are to foot extra bills like these, just to be able to support other costs as the 2 billion rounds, that homeland security is buying for no real reason with lame excuses? Go figure! I would say, this company (USA Inc.) should file for bankruptcy unless they get their budget straight again. With their spending on drones and all the other things that are supposedly needed for our security, there is no accountability. I would bet that there are enough volunteers who would be able to run the show without the FAA.

Posted by: Gerhard Paasche | June 17, 2013 1:58 AM    Report this comment

Time for EAA to offer an alternative air space solution tuned to the needs of GA.

Posted by: mike fallwell | June 17, 2013 2:41 AM    Report this comment

Thank GOD for FAA & all who labor within her ranks...especially ATC.
Disheartening/disgusting to see freeloading 1%ers in denial. All blaming the messenger (FAA) Some indulging their basest hatreds venting against Our President and his family.
With hyperbolic rhetoric Fuller (lied re $100 fee),Spence,Sclair,Busch have squandered mutual goodwill accumulated over decades. Any short pitot macho types who follow through to insult FAA on freq or confront FAA staff on ramp risk violations/arrest & entirely justified immediate FAA pullout=shutdown of event grounding all in place like 9/11. Think before you key your mic or ball your fist of how selfish&stupid makes all GA look.
Subsidies scaled back: farms to Medicare. Food stamp allocations reduced. Furloughs/hardship still spreading despite slow,steady econ rise. Airplane owners/well-fed tourists can't come up with $1 for ATC services at World's Largest, members-only, admission-charged Fly In extravaganza?
"Double tax!"
Gallonage charge=avg incremental everyday services enroute. To/from — not at AV.
FSS, weather, flight plan, flight following, routine comm... not remote equipping, staffing, housing, feeding, TDY paying cadre of top controllers handling more ops per hr than towers some come from see in a week... and pay overtime for coverage back home.

As Paul and others suggest, see if the bill makes sense and if disliked, get to work on alternatives for next year.
But this year pay up.

Posted by: Antoine Dsanoopsberry | June 17, 2013 5:38 AM    Report this comment

You make a good point about the lack of itemized billing. However, since AirVenture is EAA's biggest source of revenue, I don't understand the rationale for the general public (tax payers) paying for staffing at this optional event. By optional, I mean it does not directly contribute to the overall safety or operation of the national airspace system, which is the FAA's primary purpose.

Posted by: Thom Riddle | June 17, 2013 6:26 AM    Report this comment

Paul, You made exactly the right point, "The rest of us are having to do more with less, why shouldn't the tower cab at Wittman?". I worked at a company were I had to reduce my budget 3% / year every year and deliver more service. If I didn't do it, they would find someone else who would. My personal budget has been cut in half from 3 years ago. My point is most everyone is doing more with less. Why can't a government agency learn how to do more with less without threatening us?

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | June 17, 2013 6:52 AM    Report this comment

"By optional, I mean it does not directly contribute to the overall safety or operation of the national airspace system, which is the FAA's primary purpose."

The logical response to this argument is this: I don't have kids, yet I still pay local school taxes in favor of the greater good. Without complaint. So if American Airlines puts up a new hub in Tampa or Toledo, are they expected to pay the incremental cost of the FAA providing additional ATC services?

GA is part of the aviation economy and the overall economy. AirVenture is a major part of that entire ecosystem. It creates jobs, revenue and value. Why should it stand apart from the FAA's overall safety mission?

And if it does, the FAA should get out of the way and let these airshows find more efficient ways to handle traffic or not do it at all. As it is now, the agency is using it's authority to shakedown these organizations for money.

This is simply wrong. We're right to call out the FAA on this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 17, 2013 7:29 AM    Report this comment

But sending an itemized bill will mean they would have to produce a budget using a computer instead of pen and ink because you cannot buy carbon paper anywhere these days...

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | June 17, 2013 7:58 AM    Report this comment

Did EAA go after any alternatives? I'm not at EAA so I can't say, but after the FAA first breathed life into the rumors that EAA was going to have to pay for AirVenture controllers, I would have started looking for alternatives.

Did EAA ask the FAA for an itimized bill? Probably not and since this is the first time the FAA has done this then there are bound to be "growing pains".

I belong to a group of organizers for a small Aviation Day/Airshow in Southwestern PA and while working with the Allegheny FSDO on our waiver, etc. we encountered the most friendly, helpful people any of us have ever seen from the FAA...wonder what happnened here and are these "bills" going to be enforced on an FSDO-by-FSDO basis with the manager having the final say?

Posted by: R. Doe | June 17, 2013 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Somebody refresh my memory.

The grand deal is we pay gas fees, airlines pay their fees, and the govt (which also has interests, such as a monopoly on our national aviation rules and regulations) pays from tax revenues. All pay their share to cover total FAA costs.

The govt allows three programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) to progressively consume all available govt resources. This puts pressure on virtually all other govt spending. Govt agencies respond by trying to push their costs off to others (in our case, user fees, Oshkosh controllers, getting cities to assume tower costs) without consultation through our representatives.

We can't seem to get an actual budget in 5 years, the process for which would allow our comments to be heard through our reps. We end up keeping a bunch of towers we don't need, we spend our capital budget to keep them, and are charged for tower services already covered in the grand deal, among other things.

And someone above is hailing our glorious FAA and all the rest in govt, the same people who are party to creation of their own problems.

Not sure why EAA would spend $450K for a job the private sector can do for half that, and get an itemized bill as well.

The bigger question is why we keep fighting this sort of thing an agency at a time, without joining with others to address the larger problem pressuring everyone's budget.

If we keep buying into this piecemeal, we're bigger fools than the govt thinks we are.

Posted by: DANIEL DEDONA | June 17, 2013 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Paul is right on target. An itemized bill is exactly what is needed and expected for services rendered. This is nothing but fiscal extortion and we need to know where the extra padding on the bill is placed.

Posted by: Ric Lee | June 17, 2013 11:55 AM    Report this comment

This will continue to set a precedence, just what the FAA (and the current administration) wants. Get ready GA, you've just made a deal with the devil and it won't stop here, because GA aviation is a bunch wealthy good ole boys whom can afford this and much more! Right?

Posted by: Greg Morton | June 17, 2013 12:23 PM    Report this comment

I sat down with Poberezny twice, at his request, to review the TailLight system free in the Narco AT-155 transponder that lets the pilot see all other AT-155 equipped aircraft within 30 miles anywhere. Other aircraft could buy a $300 "fix kit" to convert their transponder. We were seeking EAA to side with us in front of the FAA.

Poberezny said he was satisfied with ATCRBS and the promises of somedayADSB, would not get involved in free collision avoidance.

He made his bed, let him pay for it.

Posted by: Keith Peshak | June 17, 2013 12:51 PM    Report this comment

This is no different than the government buying up all the ammo in the country right now (funny, there's plenty of money for THAT!). Along with the second amendment, flying is one of the great freedoms we have in this country and the fed seems to be hell bent on stomping out any form of free thought or non-conformity. "If we can't take the guns, we'll take the ammo". "If we can't keep them from gathering, maybe we can price 'em out of the air".
Just my little bit of aluminum foil hat wearing for the day....

Posted by: Scott McGowin | June 17, 2013 12:53 PM    Report this comment

Since FAA employees have to take furlough days each month and SOME are actually 'good guys,' why couldn't volunteers come in for a few days at a time. Let the EAA get a block of rooms at the UW-OSH dorms to save housing costs. Hire a few AirBoss controllers to provide continuity and cut down on the total number. Maybe even allow a few "real" FAA types to oversee the thing. As Paul says, all of us could think of a lot of ways to cut down total costs for ATC services especially if they were itemized.

As Greg (above) says ... we've allowed this to happen now so BOHICA will become the operative word for GA in the future. Almost every one of my friends has their GA airplanes up for sale ... to the non-existant hoardes of buyers out there.

Now that I think about it, though, we go to the doctor and just pay what they bill us afterward without complaining so ... why not do it to ATC services, too.

We should call the current extortion ... ObamaClear.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 17, 2013 1:05 PM    Report this comment

I would like to know on what legal authority the FAA can charge. Did Congress somehow authorize them to recover costs for special events? Or does Congress fund them exclusively through fuel taxes and general fund and task them with keeping the airspace safe? If the latter, I don't know where they come up with the authority to charge anything. Seems like an unconstitutional taxation to me without Congress.

I am also interested in the "shakedown" aspect. I think I saw some comment (from Pelton maybe?) to the effect that if EAA declined the FAA's services the FAA would not issue the various waivers required to put on the show. If this is the case, then that is a serious abuse by our government.

Note that I'm a little unclear on any details here, further verification warranted.

Posted by: JON CARLSON | June 17, 2013 1:22 PM    Report this comment

One has got to milk the cow while the cow is still standing up, even if only half alive. The profit margin for Oshkosh must have been big enough to justify the cost, or should we say, the loss potential in canceling the show in protest would have been worse. Sad to see this happening...

Posted by: Jason Baker | June 17, 2013 1:45 PM    Report this comment

The FAA is attempting to make its financial plight because of sequestration as public as it can. It could not get Congress to help them, therefore, they hit very public services, they take their woes to the American Public. And it has already worked for them once, the Towers issue brought a fiscal control release to the FAA. Now the FAA is trying for more, all the while holding the Amercian public in a terrible situation. Maybe the FAA is not a cost effective enough organization to get the FAA mission accomplished. Maybe there should be Congressional hearings on alternatives to the FAA. If a government organization is willing to publicly hold his citizens as hostages, maybe that government organization needs some serious checks, balances, and audits. It is time for the FAA to stop holding the American public as hostages. They have a mission, they need to fully fulfill their mission. This is my personal opinion as an Amercian Citizen who enjoys the AirVenture event, an event that greatly promotes aviation, a part of the FAA mission.

Posted by: Steven Oxman | June 17, 2013 6:21 PM    Report this comment

Somewhere in my stack of aviation journals, I saved a copy of Sport Aviation magazine that spent a lot of pages praising the ATC system at OSH & talked about the fact that the controllers scheduled their vacation time to work the tower during this event. All they got was a pink T-shirt & the privilage of saying they did it,the story said. What happened?

Posted by: Alan Anderson | June 17, 2013 9:19 PM    Report this comment

Somewhere in my stack of aviation journals, I saved a copy of Sport Aviation magazine that spent a lot of pages praising the ATC system at OSH & talked about the fact that the controllers scheduled their vacation time to work the tower during this event. All they got was a pink T-shirt & the privilage of saying they did it,the story said. What happened?

Posted by: Alan Anderson | June 17, 2013 9:19 PM    Report this comment

Alan, I just cut and paste this directly from the EAA website:

"Controllers are normally limited to volunteering for a total of seven years at the EAA convention, to allow others a chance to volunteer for this temporary duty assignment."

So I suppose that it is a paid assignment. But if they have to be limited to volunteering a total of 7 times, it makes me wonder how many controllers would be willing to do it just for the experience?

Paid or not, they are appreciated in my view. I wouldn't want to try to fly into Oshkosh along with a zillion other airplanes without their help...

Posted by: STEVE BOWLING | June 17, 2013 10:56 PM    Report this comment

Alan, this is volunteering in the military sense of the word. They still get paid whether on vacation or not. Moreover, the home facilities from which they come pay overtime to cover the shifts.

This is all from the be-careful-what-you-wish-for file. If Oshkosh tower had been closed, as was the FAA's plan earlier this year, it would have been a lot easier and cheaper to bring in AirBoss to run the show and it would have been transparent to pilots.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 18, 2013 4:32 AM    Report this comment

There is no surprise here at all. The pattern has been evident since this administration took office and continues unabated. You get what you elect plain and simple. Don't expect anything to change because it won't and don't expect any explanation for any action on their part because they never have given a truthful one for anything to date. It is what it is until voters change it.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | June 18, 2013 6:00 AM    Report this comment

Looking ahead, I'm concerned that next year EAA won't be given a choice. The government is the sole organization that can legally threaten (up to and including the use of deadly force) to get its goals accomplished. Imagine what this country would be like if for example AirBoss or even Walmart could do that to its customers.

Posted by: A Richie | June 18, 2013 10:03 AM    Report this comment

Since apparently the FAA is now working on a fee for service basis, and I normally fly from an uncontrolled airfield, and the vast majority of ATC services that I do use are for the benefit of the airlines and not me, can I get a refund on the gasoline taxes that I have paid? After I get that refund, it would be only reasonable that I pay for my share of the ATC services at AirVenture, which I do use.

Needless to say, general aviation is a mostly political conservative group and the regime will do what it can to stick it to its enemies. Perhaps we can expect the IRS to audit EAA sometime soon.

Posted by: Kenneth Katz | June 18, 2013 9:13 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Cooke, there are 536 elected crooks in Washington. They both steal your money, they just do it in a slightly different way. Are they in Democratic Party personnel? Then they typically want to tax and spend the money on their pet projects. Are they in the Republican Party? Then they borrow and spend money on their pet projects, but we still end up paying the bill.

Posted by: Joseph Servov | June 18, 2013 9:36 PM    Report this comment

My error, 537 elected crooks. 435 in the House, 101 in the Senate (incl. the VP), and the President.

Posted by: Joseph Servov | June 18, 2013 9:38 PM    Report this comment

Only in the federal government does one pay volunteers, which is how the AV controllers have been described for years. Will the EAA now pay the thousands of volunteers that make AV possible? Paul, Hightower and others have in tha past few years publicly stated that AirVenture is the only activity that makes them money, the reason many refer to the EAA as AirVenture Inc. On user fees, GA News posted my comments asking what was fundamentally wrong with them in their December 4th 2011 issue. Without reading what I wrote, many crucified me for a suggestion that runs counter to the alphabet's mantra - just as they do now regarding mogas. If we paid a user fee directly to competing, private organizations and not taxes filtered through multiple bureaucracies only to plundered by others, costs would go down and services would go up. We would have adopted the Swiss FLARM collision-avoidance system that evolved from a private initiative among glider pilots and is highly affordable. Free markets work wonders when you get the government out of the way.

Posted by: Kent Misegades | June 19, 2013 6:46 AM    Report this comment

Amazing! Can't afford $500,000 for 10s of thousand people to attend Airventure for a week, but can pay $100 million for Obama and family to take a weeks vacation to Africa.

Posted by: Richard Phillips | June 19, 2013 7:14 AM    Report this comment

The participants are double-paying for ATC services--first in fuel taxes, and then second on the EAA extortion fee. Just because GA activity is concentrated on a particular week that does not justify an additional fee. Services must be provided whenever and wherever it occurs in the NAS sufficient to provide safety.

Posted by: John Smith | June 19, 2013 7:30 AM    Report this comment

This country has completely gone to hell. Eaa backing down? I canceled airventure this year until they get balls.

Posted by: AARON YOUNG | June 19, 2013 8:28 AM    Report this comment

I am not surprised the EAA caved in and paid the FAA extortion money. EAA AirVenture is BIG business and the EAA has no interest in poking the Government honey hive, so they pay like all the other BIG businesses. A truly grassroots EAA would tell the FAA ‘No Thanks, we will handle our own airshow traffic’. Imagine what would happen if a private organization could show they could safely operate and control traffic at the world’s busiest airport! Next thing you know we might actually be talking about private companies running the ATC system nationwide (I think there is a county somewhere north of OSH that already does that).

If the EAA has any sense of mission they would start organizing SNF and AV ATC as part of the volunteer program and perhaps contract with a private ATC services company to oversee the effort. This is America, this is what we do when the confronted by these kinds of problems. The EAA is BIG business, so I expect they (actually it’s we members and show attendees) will continue to pay the FAA task master their levy.

Posted by: John Salak | June 19, 2013 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Just another comment about the President and family going to Africa for 100 million dollars. That would fund FAA controllers for Airventure for 200 years. Wonder if he would cancel his trip to help us out!

Posted by: Richard Phillips | June 19, 2013 10:18 AM    Report this comment

The silver lining here will be a much broader willingness to go do down the path of privatized air traffic control -- a reflection on the FAA, not the agency's controllers.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | June 20, 2013 1:49 PM    Report this comment

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