Guest Blog: Landing Fees A Waste Of Time And Money

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A mere five months had gone by when a bill arrived from Cincinnati Lunken airport for a landing incurred from when I landed a friend’s Cessna 340 there. A long billing cycle no doubt, but the fee was almost comical if not wasteful. But, upon receipt, we sent the check for the $6.00 fee. I figure by the time they received it the airport spent more staff time, mailing and printing fees, and administrative processing effort than could be gained by any benefit of the receipt of the $6.00. But whatever, they got their landing fee. Right? Oh, I forgot to mention, this fee was only payable by check through the mail. A highly modern billing process no doubt.

Sadly, this isn’t the only example of a landing fee I have personally encountered that seems to have little potential positive impact or value to an airport.

Similarly, we were recently assessed a $5.00 landing fee from Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland. The best part of this example was that I know the airport has this landing fee, and when we went into the FBO I inquired if we could pay it on the spot. Unfortunately, I was told that wasn’t possible, that the airport had to send a bill. This one was at least billed within approximately three months.

On another trip, to Indianapolis, I got billed a landing fee as a part of my ramp services bill one day, but three days later when I went to the same airport, bought the same amount of fuel and used the exact same services, the FBO waived it. Why the landing fee applied one day and not another I have no idea.

Even more interesting was the $16.50 landing fee that was billed about three months after I had “landed” at the Battle Creek airport. The odd part was that on the day the landing fee was assessed, I hadn’t actually landed there. I had shot a practice ILS approach on the way home, cancelled my IFR clearance and then continued to our home base airport about 30 miles away. Hmm. So, wait, I got billed when I didn’t actually land there? Yup.

I wasn’t really all that disagreeable about the fee itself since I had landed there twice the month before without getting any bills for those landings. But it did raise a question: Sometimes I was billed and not others. So, I called the airport operations manager to get to the bottom of it.

It turns out that they bill “landings” based on reviewing logs on FlightAware.com that look like they terminated at the airport. The problem with that is that the airport doesn’t actually know if aircraft that weren’t captured on FlightAware.com landed at the airport or if aircraft that look like they terminated there actually ended up landing at Battle Creek’s airport. Oh, and on top of that, it appears that this really only reliably captures IFR traffic. The result, and this was confirmed with the conversation with the airport operations manager, is that the airport is actually unable to reliably apply its published landing fee structure because it has no reliable way of telling what aircraft actually land at KBTL.

Did our conversation change anything in their process? Well, I don’t think so. The result of our conversation was an indication that it was the best they could do and that they would keep doing it. The bad news is that, and I am sure they are not the only airport with a similar potential liability, they are disparately billing pilots for landing fees, unable to apply landing fees within their own published fees structures.

Why should we care as pilots? These and other examples I have run across, and I am sure many of you readers have numerous other examples, highlight an inefficient and ineffective structure of billing for landings at many airports we visit. And it is all done with very minimal benefit for the financial support of these airports.

These fees are haphazard in their administration. Sometimes you can pay them on the spot, sometimes not. In some cases, the FBO has the ability to waive them, in others, they don’t. Some airports publish official fee structures, others seem to bill in a less structured manner. When it comes down to it, there is no real rhyme or reason throughout our airport system when it comes to landing fees for aircraft or airports of differing sizes. In most cases, the administrative process by which they are charged is unsophisticated.

Landing fees have become a wasteful bureaucratic process that is commonly ineffective in its administration, for what I can only think is a minimal benefit. Is there any chance that the time it took for someone at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront airport to track that we had landed there, document it in whatever system they use for billing, send a bill, then receive our payment and log all this was actually something that made the airport any money? Is this a really beneficial process or a make-work effort to create a job at the airport?

I am not advocating that as a result every airport increase the costs of landing fees so they become highly profitable. Instead, it may be time for airports to evaluate if the minimal fees they are charging are actually helping the bottom-line operations budget or just an annoyance (and when disparately applied, a potential legal liability) to the pilots that use the airport.

One must wonder, is it even logical to bother charging these?

It is likely that staff and management of many airports that have fees such as this are just doing the job that their administrative body, such as a city council, has tasked them with doing. To some degree, it comes down to us as pilots to identify these illogical fees, and bring them, and their potential legal pitfalls when inequitably administered, to the governing body for review. This can improve awareness of a need to better administrate the fees, or when not possible to do so, to request they be eliminated.

It is important our airports have operating budgets that allow them to be successful, to maintain their facilities and, hopefully, thrive and expand. But it is also important that unnecessary fees are eliminated when they don’t actually contribute to that success. I encourage all of us as pilots to work with the airports at which we operate, and others that we visit, to carefully consider what fees are in place and how they are conducted. Get involved with administration at these airports, and ask them to honestly consider if these fees are beneficial or are just make-work efforts. If they are the latter, help our industry to eliminate wasteful barriers to the use of our federally financially supported airports by pilots wanting to fly for business and pleasure.