The FAA’s demand that the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) pay $447,924 for ATC services at this year’s AirVenture celebration in Oshkosh, Wis., stunned the entire aviation community, and ran contrary to the decades-long relationship between the two organizations. In the days leading up to EAA AirVenture 2013 (July 29-August 4), EAA board chairman, acting president and CEO Jack Pelton spoke with AIN about the association's response, as well as changes at this year’s AirVenture and to EAA itself.
What went through your mind when you first became aware of the FAA's plan to charge EAA to have the controllers at AirVenture?
Initially, I was more concerned about what the White House was attempting to do to all airports in the name of budget sequestration, such as forcing tower closures. I really did not believe that the EAA would end up being a target itself, but that's what happened and we wound up being highlighted. It was an interesting evolution.
Although you have since filed a lawsuit protesting those charges, EAA had to write a sizable check to the FAA this year. Where did that money have to come from, and how does EAA hope to compensate for that loss?
To be clear, we wrote a check for half of the total payment; we hope the second payment will never need to come to fruition, and that we will see a refund of the first. That money came out of EAA’s operating budget, which means that at the end of day it came out of monies we would otherwise use to support all EAA programs.
The contract that EAA was held hostage to sign assigns a $45 ATC fee per airplane, on top of what those operators already pay in fuel taxes for ATC services, all for a VFR arrival into an airport. If the FAA successfully establishes a precedent to charge such fees, where does that lead? In the case of AirVenture, we would need to rethink numerous aspects of how we put on the show. This also has incredibly far-reaching consequences for our industry, especially at a time when we should encourage people to become active in aviation, not place new hurdles and roadblocks ahead of them.
Where are you regarding that petition to the FAA over ATC fees?
The FAA has until the end of August to respond. The agency may seek to dismiss our petition, or present a counterargument. So, we are holding until we see the formal judicial response.
Turning to your tenure to-date as EAA’s chairman of the board and acting president, how would you characterize the recent changes made within the organization?
I think my predecessor [former EAA president and CEO Rod Hightower] tried to implement a lot of changes without a lot of member input, or consideration for the traditional culture of EAA. The past nine months have seen a return to recognizing and honoring that culture. It's not different from running a large company like Cessna, where we also had to look to the future while at the same time nurturing the company's then 75-year history.
Was the decision to shutter the flight line chalets a signal of a return to that culture?
I don't think it required any brilliant insight to see that the chalets just looked wrong and were contrary to the spirit of EAA. We want to explore new revenue opportunities, of course, but we also want those opportunities to be inclusive to all members. The chalets ran counter to that.
What other aspects of AirVenture 2013 might attendees notice that are different from past years?
I think they will notice a fun feeling around the air show itself. Although the U.S. military has never really been a large part of the airshow, due to the sequester attendees will see even more diversity in the sky from general aviation performers.
As one example, I recently spent a day touring the grounds with Yves “Jetman” Rossy, who in addition to making his first public flights in the U.S. at AirVenture is also attending the show for his first time. He said he doesn't think of himself an airshow performer, but rather as someone who’s spent over 10 years innovating and developing his own homebuilt sport aircraft.
What might we expect from the search for a new EAA president after AirVenture 2013 wraps up?
We are taking our time. The board is comfortable with where we are today, and we have the opportunity to look at what we want the roles of chairman and president to be. We may see a model where the president's role isn't as visible as before, but is rather an executive, behind-the-scenes position.
My term as chairman runs three years, with the option to renew for another three, and I am willing to do whatever we need to do. We’re also actively recruiting capable people for board positions, who are willing to take a similar hands-on role in setting the course for EAA. We want others who, if asked to take a greater role, will reply, "It's my turn, and I'm ready to do what it takes."