It is over.
The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the FAA have signed a nine-year deal for the agency to provide ATC services at the EAA’s annual AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wis. Under the agreement, the EAA will reimburse the FAA for all related expenses and overtime and drop its federal lawsuit challenging the FAA’s authority to impose those charges.
Those charges amounted to $447,000 when levied for the first time–and on very short notice–last year, sparking an angry reaction from EAA and other general aviation groups, who saw them as veiled special event “user fees.” The FAA had traditionally provided ATC services at AirVenture without charge, but changed its policy suddenly last year, citing new federal budget constraints on the agency. “It was an enormous shock,” EAA chairman Jack Pelton said. “We thought the method of how they went about asking us to augment their budget was inappropriate.”
Pelton said the new agreement removes uncertainty regarding ATC services for the airshow and was the best available option in the face of protracted litigation and lack of congressional support for the introduction of targeted legislation that would have prevented the FAA from imposing such charges on the EAA and other organizations. The deal allows the EAA to find an alternative ATC vendor at its option or to void the agreement in the event of any relief passed by Congress. For the moment, help from Washington appears unlikely. “We have a lot of supporters in Washington,” Pelton said, “but we were not able to get them to create any legislation” that would have eliminated the need to enter into a contractual arrangement with the FAA. “We just didn’t get there,” Pelton said.
The EAA’s chief patron in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), a senior member of the House Transportation Committee and a former aviation subcommittee chairman, issued a statement after the deal was reached. “At the end of the day, the EAA felt this was the best course of action, and I support them in this decision. It was certainly not the best outcome possible, but it does give the organization and the general aviation community certainty that AirVenture will continue. I continue to question the FAA’s authority to charge EAA for the costs of AirVenture and other airshows or special events, but I’m glad this moves things forward for the time being as we look for a more permanent resolution.”
Petri announced on April 12 that he will not stand for re-election.
Few Alternatives to Fees
The agreement marks a retreat by EAA, which agreed to the first-time imposition of the fees “under protest” last year rather than cancel the airshow. However, it subsequently filed a federal lawsuit challenging their legitimacy, conducted a member petition drive in opposition to them, lobbied Congress for relief, and passed out “This Isn’t Over” buttons at AirVenture 2013. Pelton wore one of those buttons and was visibly seething over the issue at his annual AirVenture news conference last year.
In a conference call explaining the EAA’s decision, Pelton made it clear that the settlement was driven by a lack of appealing alternative options to FAA service–including the use of private firms, volunteers and military controllers–and the failure to garner congressional support for relief from FAA fees. “Without FAA control tower services, the event [AirVenture] would be impossible on the scale we have today,” Pelton said. “There are too many FAA exemptions that are necessary for the types of air operations we have.”
He said he had negotiated the new deal personally with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta over the course of several months. The deal includes a credit for half the fees the EAA paid the FAA last year. It allows the EAA and the FAA to agree to appropriate controller staffing levels annually. “We’ve got head-count numbers and we know what they have done in the past,” Pelton said. He said FAA controller staffing increases at recent AirVentures were “incremental and appropriate based on air traffic volume. This isn’t going to be an open check and they [the FAA] are not going to over-staff the event. The checks and balances are there to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Pelton was asked if the agreement would not at least symbolically embolden the FAA to pursue aviation user fees. “It sends a strong message that it could be the case,” Pelton conceded. “As an industry, looking at user fees in the presidential budget and what may or may not be proposed for congressional FAA reauthorization down the road, I would hope this would be an opportunity, a catalyst for all of us in the industry to get together and ensure that this doesn’t get worse as opposed to better.”
Recent congresses have repeatedly rejected aviation user fees suggested by the federal executive branch.
EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this year will be held from July 27 to August 3.