FBO Price Gouging: Should The FAA Get Involved?

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Call them ramp fees, facility charges or handling fees. When you pull up to many FBOs there’s a good chance you’ll be billed a flat-rate charge just for taking space on the ramp. In general, the larger the aircraft, the more you’ll pay. Most facilities that collect facility fees will waive them if you oblige by buying a specific amount of fuel, which of course always works out to be more than the fee. But what if you only want to park the airplane without any help from line services, and simply walk to the other side of the airport fence? Should you still have to pay for taking space on the ramp?

No matter what, my mentality is that I never expect anything for free and that’s especially true when aviating. If I’m using the FBO’s Wi-Fi, drinking its coffee, swigging its mouthwash and using its line staff to reposition the airplane so I can get good photos and video, I have no problem paying a reasonable charge. I've worked the line and understand the real costs of FBO overhead. Like at hotels, I’ve been both gouged and treated fairly by the best and worst. Some FBOs just get it and they’re worth mentioning.

When we flew the Cirrus Vision Jet last fall, we set up shop for a couple of hours on the ramp at Pentastar Aviation in Pontiac, Michigan (PTK), for some filming. Wandering inside to find a snack machine, I was thrilled to find no shortage of quality munchie food on the counters for the taking. There was a lot of it—like stuff your cargos with as much as you can fit. Even better, the restrooms were clean and overly lux. Noticing my cookie-eating grin, my colleague Paul Bertorelli had to remind me that we were on the better side of the tracks, where fresh lemonade, pastries and granite urinals come at a price. 

Pentastar says for it to “provide maximum value” (which means stocking its counters for guys like me who mooch its food), it charges a $30 handling fee for single-engine airplanes, which is waived if you buy 25 gallons of $4.95 per gallon full-service 100LL. Light jets are billed $150 unless they take on 100 gallons of Jet-A. Given the above-average level of service and quality of its facility, plus fuel prices that fall well within the average for the region, it’s tough to complain about Pentastar’s handling fees, which would be bolder yet when you climb out of a $1.5 million ride. But there’s a larger issue brewing and it's all about price gouging, made worse when you pull up to an FBO ramp on a federally funded airport not needing any services. You know, bring your own ropes and come back in a few hours. I think there need to be better options and I’m not alone.

According to both AOPA and the FAA, they’ve heard from an increasing number of pilots who are being charged for FBO services they don’t ask for or receive. There have also been complaints of price gouging at certain airports with no competing FBOs, which has prompted AOPA’s initiative attempting to ensure reasonable and transparent pricing at FBOs on public airports. Even the FAA has stepped in, publishing its own Q&A guidance for pilots, FBOs and airport sponsors that addresses how federally funded airports should facilitate competition and transparency, while promoting reasonable pricing and access. The link to the December 2017 six-page document is found here. Like most FAA guidance, be prepared to read through it a few times.

Some FBO managers I talked with are losing their minds over the mere existence of an FAA document on the matter that, according to the agency, “is not an attempt to impose new regulations or policies on airports.” But in the document, the FAA essentially says it can review FBO/airport sponsor (that’s the tenant/ landlord) leases and follow up on complaints of price gouging, while reinforcing that it has a statutory mandate to ensure that airport sponsors comply with federal obligations. To me, that’s a setup for more FAA intervention. Stay tuned.

To get a sense of how widespread the problem of FBO price gouging is, we’ll be launching an FBO satisfaction survey and reporting on it in a future issue of sister publication Aviation Consumer magazine.

Comments (20)

If the FAA can regulate what goes on inside the hangars on an airport it provides (often substantial) AIP funding to, what's the beef if they -- likewise -- provide 'guidance' to FBO operators and airport sponsors regarding the fees they charge on that very same airport vis-a-vis AIP grant assurances?

I took the time to read the referenced "Pricing Practices" document and don't see any particular problem with it. They make a clear point of saying that the FAA isn't in the pricing business and that it only seeks to ensure that compliance with AIP funding grant assurances have been met. Normally cynical with regard to the FAA, I actually thought they did a decent job of generically defining their role in the matter. You did a good job of verbalizing the issues, too.

In much the same way as a few complaints about hangars on an airport in the Phoenix area resulted in the FAA's Hangar Use policy, a few airport operators in northern Illinois and Florida charging high fuel and ramp fees caused complaints to surface and AOPA to formalize those to the FAA. As I understand it, those fees have now been adjusted downward? Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?

Airplane operators are in a unique position. Gravity and human physiological needs ensure that they have to come down occasionally. Charging $30 just to park a Skyhawk for a while seems excessive to me. Conversely, a commercially operated airplane full of people doing same is the other end of the spectrum. Most of the places I frequent only charge for overnight parking ... not for 'waiting' or using a bathroom. I expect to pay a reasonable fee for overnight parking but not just to use a bathroom or stretch my legs or rest. Word would get out fast when excessive, bordering on discriminatory fees are charged ... and that's what generated the FAA "help" here..

Seems to me that a small fee for daytime use and a larger overnight parking fee -- possibly waived for fuel purchase -- is the way to handle the issue. OR ... how about just selling the goodies at an inflated cost to help pay for them? At the place I spend my summers, I feel they're giving away services that ought to be compensated ... the opposite of this issue. I look forward to hearing the results of your survey.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 26, 2018 3:44 AM    Report this comment

It's a wrap!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 26, 2018 10:23 AM    Report this comment

There really isn't much more I can add than to second what both Larrys said.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 26, 2018 10:30 AM    Report this comment

Please keep in mind that that FBO has a lot of risk exposure. Whether an aircraft taxiing on the ramp or someone walking on ice or a wet floor (where someone else spilled coffee and didn't clean it up (or bother telling a CSR or LSTech). And, it doesn't matter the circumstances, it's always the FBO's fault. Reasonable facility fees are justified.

Posted by: Curtis George | February 26, 2018 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Part of the solution at publically funded airports is to have a designated area and gates for GA airplanes to use. We paid for the airport with our fuel tax so we must be allowed to use them without excessive cost. Part of the issue is also TSA. If there are GA gates, how can they be monitored for TSA needs?

Posted by: Mike Terhune | February 26, 2018 1:48 PM    Report this comment

we always fill up at Wisconsin Aviation. They are great, they always have a car for me to go to Madison to get lunch. So putting in 50 -70 gallons of gas, with exemplary service, is a bargain.

Posted by: Thomas Ficho | February 26, 2018 3:23 PM    Report this comment

AOPA's claim that FBO's are intentionally denying pilots access via prices is not logical.

I must pass along my copy of AOPA Pilot Magazine to my close friend because he can't afford to belong to AOPA. Is AOPA denying him access to the magazine?
The AOPA is trying to sue its way to lower fuel price and fees. Lawsuits are a big reason for high prices in the first place. The next time you stop at a big city airport, ask to be parked on the 'no liability' ramp.

Posted by: Randy Langford | February 26, 2018 4:29 PM    Report this comment


The issue at hand is that at many airports, the FBO is the only means by which a pilot can get through the fence. If there was a no-services ramp operated directly by the airport independent of the FBO, then of course the FBO is free to charge whatever it wants. Pilots could then choose if the FBO's services are worth its costs.

But at a public airport, the bargain has always been that our fuel excise taxes pay for our share of the NAS. If an FBO exercises monopoly power over access through-the-fence, then that access must be free of exclusionary pricing.

At Class B airports, sure, pricing should be used to keep little planes out. But at most Class C airports, and certainly anything D or smaller, the FAA has an interest, and even an obligation, to make sure that access to tax-funded facilities is not being limited via private profits.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | February 26, 2018 4:39 PM    Report this comment

What exactly am I supposed to get in return for the fuel taxes I pay? ATC service, a runway, maybe a taxiway then what? If I taxi in front of an FBO drop of a couple of passengers who just walk through the only FBO and out the only exit, should I have to pay a $10.00 fee if I leave after a minute or two? What if my passengers eat popcorn or use a restroom, should they pay or should I as pilot have to pay for them.? Do we really want to get the FAA involved in setting toilet fees?

Posted by: Richard Montague | February 27, 2018 7:24 AM    Report this comment

Honestly, I've never seen this as a problem; much less needing federal involvement.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 27, 2018 8:07 AM    Report this comment

Can't believe I'm going to defend the FAA ... maybe I have a fever? ... RAF ... call me a bambulance ! :-)

You guys need to read the document. It doesn't dictate anything. It reminds FBO's and airport operators that they have signed up to certain assurances when they accepted AIP funding grants. It walks a pretty tight rope between directing prices and doing nothing. It only reminds --- mostly FBO's -- that they better not charge excessive fees or THEN the Feds might act. It asks eight hypothetical questions to which they answer with a good discussion. Paragraph 1 of the 'background' talks about the issue then the document discusses it.

We need to figure out who -- within the FAA -- is running ACO-100 and put them in charge of the whole FAA. Oh no ... my fever is up to 105.

Like Mark F says, I haven't experienced FBO price gouging but I DO spend time near where it was happening. Complaints were forwarded to the FAA, they responded and now we can move on to the next blog ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 27, 2018 1:05 PM    Report this comment


All of your activity is limited by what you can afford. I rent rather than own an airplane because I can't afford the hanger rent. Is the cost of hanger rent "exclusionary pricing"? Do you experience "exclusionary pricing" at some golf clubs?

Exclusionary pricing is not used at Class B or any airport to keep little planes out. A lot of little planes live at Class B airports. They have decided that the cost is worth it.

Thru a gate access between the ramp and parking lot cannot happen for free. I fly from one of the smallest airports and the FBO and tenants are responsible for watching the gate. Someone must pay the cost of watching the gate.

The statement by AOPA that "Pilots are not looking for a free ride" is wrong too. Just tell a pilot there is no crew car and watch out.

Posted by: Randy Langford | February 27, 2018 1:40 PM    Report this comment


The FAA also gets what it pays for. And we pay for the FAA through fuel taxes. One of those things that the FAA's AIP grants are supposed to pay for is non-exclusionary access. A $50 handling fee and $50 per day parking fee is exclusionary, and in violation in principle of the terms of accepting AIP funds. Up until now the notion of what defined "exclusionary" has not been codified, but as some airport managers and FBOs have clearly stepped over the line from reasonable user fee pricing and exploitation of a government-granted monopoly power, the FAA has a clear interest and duty to start setting some boundaries.

If an airport were completely privately funded, I'd have no disagreement whatsoever. But we've already paid for the airports. Being told we need to pay again because an airport manager signed away rights to the gate to a contractually-enforced monopoly FBO is another manner entirely.

We're paying, even if indirectly, for reasonable access to the NAS. That doesn't necessarily mean free, but it does mean not privatizing that access solely to extract profit.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | February 27, 2018 2:09 PM    Report this comment

MY summer airport solves the gate problem by having NO gates, NO fences and only rabid old pilots who watch the place like a hawk. In fact, from 1400 miles away, I can keep an eye on things because I have access to the security camera system as a tenant. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I always check in to see what I see which is usually only a deer or two. THAT is the way it oughta be everywhere. And Randy ... we have a fine Crown Vicky for ya when you stop in. :-) How do we pay for it all ... by charging a buck for candy bars and having a donation can on the desk plus a modicum of volunteerism. And this is for an AIP funded airport with privately owned hangars on leased land. Stop in on the way to Airventure ... we're the first paved runway west of OSH.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 27, 2018 2:17 PM    Report this comment

The two main issues seem to be high charges for services that are neither used nor desired, and true transparency of those fees. If an airport or FBO chooses to charge fees, they should be clearly published in airport directories or on the FBO's website. AOPA received numerous cases of pilots being asked to pay for fees that they were unaware even existed. If the FAA is just reminding airports and FBOs of the ground rules, they are simply doing their job.

As for what is "fair", that is often a perception among the users, assuming you aren't being charged for services you never requested nor used. In some cases, it may be an issue of "out of sight, out of mind". By publicizing the issue at several airports around the country, AOPA got the attention of the city officials who made changes fairly quickly. As with most things in politics, shining a light on the subject usually gets results.

Posted by: John McNamee | February 27, 2018 2:22 PM    Report this comment

I was the GM of a mid-size FBO in the '80s. I know this much: ask 10 people what's "reasonable and fair," and you'll get at least 11 answers. Stencil rules.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | February 27, 2018 6:46 PM    Report this comment


I don't doubt that for a second, and I agree with Larry that the FAA seems to be playing this fairly reasonably with their guidelines. What's reasonable absolutely changes based on the airport, the plane, and, more questionably, whether a commercial or noncommercial operation.

Much like the famous obscenity trial, "I know it when I see it", and having no choice but to pay $100 to walk from the ramp to the parking lot at a sleepy class D is obscene. At SFO, it would be a bargain.

Doubly so if there is no way to find out those charges ahead of time until you're already there.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | February 27, 2018 10:26 PM    Report this comment

I feel your pain. Regardless of anyone's opinion of what is "fair and reasonable" pricing, transparency is both fair AND reasonable - and should be an expectation (a.k.a., a "requirement").

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | February 28, 2018 7:30 AM    Report this comment

"Doubly so if there is no way to find out those charges ahead of time until you're already there."

That's really the main issue I have with FBO fees. If they seem "reasonable" to me given the location, I don't mind paying them if I need the convenience of that particular airport. But if there are 2 or 3 airports within close proximity to my destination, I would like to be able to pick the one with the best value (which is not the same as "cheapest"). This is all but impossible to do since most FBOs don't publicly list their fees, and the only way to get some idea is to read the comments of each FBO on the various internet sources. But even this only gives you part of the picture.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 28, 2018 7:41 AM    Report this comment

"Doubly so if there is no way to find out those charges ahead of time until you're already there."

That's really the main issue I have with FBO fees. If they seem "reasonable" to me given the location, I don't mind paying them if I need the convenience of that particular airport. But if there are 2 or 3 airports within close proximity to my destination, I would like to be able to pick the one with the best value (which is not the same as "cheapest"). This is all but impossible to do since most FBOs don't publicly list their fees, and the only way to get some idea is to read the comments of each FBO on the various internet sources. But even this only gives you part of the picture.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 28, 2018 7:42 AM    Report this comment

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