Airshows in the U.S., already reeling from widespread cancellations and significantly diminished attendance following the withdrawal of U.S. military demonstration teams, are now facing a new financial hurdle: user fees from the FAA.
The Pentagon blamed the withdrawal of its popular jet demonstration teams, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, on cutbacks attributable to automatic federal budget sequestration. The Army also has withdrawn its Golden Knights parachute team.
The results have devastated the industry, according to John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. Cudahy told AIN that airshow attendance nationwide is down an estimated 50 percent because of the jet teams’ withdrawal and that 62 of the 300 shows scheduled this year have already been canceled, rather than face financial losses from diminished attendance. Shows that are continuing “are barely holding on,” he said, and may not have adequate resources for next year, particularly if the military does not reactivate the demonstration teams, historically the biggest crowd draw.
Cudahy calls the new FAA user fees “a barely constitutional money-grab” that may push surviving shows over the financial cliff. “This is punitive,” he added.
From small fly-ins to the giant Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., this month to the National Air Races in Reno in September, the FAA is imposing fees for the presence of observers, aircraft inspectors, air traffic controllers and other officials. The largest assessments so far are on events related to the Experimental Aircraft Association. In April, Sun ’n’ Fun in Lakeland, Fla., paid the FAA $285,000 for ATC services during its week-long gathering. Days later, after a week of widespread commercial flight delays caused by air traffic controller furloughs, Congress voted to allow the FAA to eliminate furloughs by tapping Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds. Some Washington observers think the move emboldened the FAA, and days later administrator Michael Huerta demanded that the EAA pay $479,000 in air traffic control fees for its annual AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wis. The event, which attracts more than 10,000 aircraft, is the largest civil airshow in the U.S. “[The FAA is] holding us hostage,” EAA chairman Jack Pelton told AIN.
AirVenture begins on July 29. On May 14 Huerta and FAA COO David Grizzle informed Pelton of the fees and demanded immediate payment, ostensibly to cover the cost of controller expenses and overtime. The FAA holds a lottery to select controllers who go to Oshkosh and a typical workforce there consists of 87 FAA controllers and supervisors over nine days.
The Arlington (Washington) Fly-In got even less notice, receiving a demand for payment in late May for its July 11-13 show, which attracts 35,000 to 50,000 attendees and 1,000 aircraft. FAA sources told show executive director Barbara Tolbert that the agency initially was going to propose a $130,000 fee; however, by the time the demand was formally made that number had been reduced to $17,500. Through negotiations with the FAA’s Northwest regional office, Tolbert managed to get the final amount reduced further, to $15,000, with payments made in installments.
Resistance in Washington
The EAA attempted to mobilize its members and Congress to block the new FAA airshow fees. In a June 3 message, Pelton told EAA members that it is time to speak out against the FAA’s bid to charge air traffic fees at aviation events. Members of the U.S. Senate received more than 18,000 messages from GA backers protesting the FAA’s plan to charge the EAA for ATC services at EAA AirVenture. Most of the messages were sent within 48 hours of an EAA appeal on June 3.
A bipartisan letter of opposition has attracted the signatures of 28 senators. In the House, Tom Petri (R-Wis.), former chairman of the House Aviation subcommittee, led the opposition. His district includes Oshkosh. Petri said the federal aviation fuel taxes paid by participating aircraft more than cover any FAA costs associated with the event. “Given the amount of fuel taxes this generates, maybe the FAA should be cutting the EAA a check, rather than the other way around,” Petri told AIN.
Petri, now chairman of the larger and more powerful House Highways and Transit subcommittee, said Congress would take a hard look at the FAA’s legal authority to impose the new fees. “Making a change of this sort, to begin charging fees after 60 years of not doing it, I think [the FAA does not] have the authority to do it without congressional action,” Petri said. “Past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have proposed charging user fees for various events. It’s always been the position of our [Transportation and Infrastructure] committee that it should be based on a fuel tax or similar thing that would be fair and easy to administer.”
Petri hinted that it could become a stumbling block to the Senate’s final confirmation of transportation secretary designee Anthony Foxx. Senate offices contacted by AIN doubted that the issue would gather much traction there and that Foxx likely would gain easy confirmation. Petri said he doubted that Congress would pass any specific curative legislation.
At press time EAA had agreed to pay the FAA nearly $450,000 to ensure the show goes on. Failure to sign with the FAA would have meant cancelling AirVenture, since refusal of FAA services or failure to meet the agency’s standards would have caused the agency to void the necessary waivers that are essential for air operations during AirVenture. Along with the completed agreement, the association included a letter stating that it signed the document under protest.
Cudahy, who has spent most of the summer lobbying to save his industry, chided Congressional indifference to its plight. “I am astounded by the low level of discourse.”
In a prepared statement issued June 7, the FAA said the new charges are necessary to cover “incremental costs” associated with staffing air shows, including travel and lodging, and are not user fees.
In late June, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee released its Fiscal Year 2014 Department of Transportation spending bill. It blocks “the availability of funds for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to finalize or implement any regulation that would promulgate new aviation user fees not specifically authorized by law.”