The Experimental Aircraft Association signed, under protest, a $447,000 contract to hire the government, with EAA AirVenture 2013 hanging in the balance.
EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the FAA held AirVenture and general aviation "hostage," and vowed to continue fighting the agency's demand for payment to cover air traffic control costs related to the Oshkosh, Wis. fly-in that would have been canceled if EAA refused to pay. AirVenture will begin July 29, and Pelton said he looks forward to giving senior agency leadership an opportunity to "personally explain their policy to the nation's aviators."
Members of the U.S. Senate received more than 19,000 messages from aviation supporters protesting the FAA’s plan to charge EAA about $500,000 for air traffic services at EAA AirVenture this summer, EAA said.
The messages—most sent within 48 hours of an EAA appeal on June 3—objected to the FAA’s move to impose a user fee on an aviation event, a decision that mirrors the nearly $285,000 bill handed by the government agency to organizers of the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland, Fla., in April. Sun 'n Fun President John Leenhouts said various tourism organizations in the state agreed to chip in and help pay that bill, though it would curtail scholarship and other support for youth education that has become a year-round focus of the organization.
On June 6, 28 senators sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, expressing deep concerns about the safety implications of this year’s AirVenture fee, and pointing out that GA "already pays its fair share" for air traffic services through an aviation fuel excise tax. Also, flights connected to the annual event in Oshkosh, Wis., are likely to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue from the fuel excise tax, they wrote.
Pelton said the association found the response of the aviation community “very gratifying.”
"Members of Congress from both parties saw this for what it is—a user fee on general aviation—and have stepped forward in opposition," he said in a news release.
EAA credited the prompt work of Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and the bipartisan support of Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in gathering Senate support. U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) supported the effort in the House, EAA said.
AOPA, already hard at work to defeat user fees proposed in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget, has criticized the FAA’s fee plan for EAA AirVenture as “troubling news.”
Although the federal budget sequester began to hit FAA operations earlier this year—at one time threatening the closure of 149 contract control towers until Congress permitted the reallocation of unallocated funds—the agency has weathered past budget crises without upping the ante for basic services.
In July 2011, when FAA employees faced furloughs during an agency reauthorization deadlock, then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt spoke at EAA AirVenture, expressing regret for a scaled back outreach effort by the agency.
“In the meantime, we are maintaining the safety of our aviation system—and we are supporting operational safety here at AirVenture, as we always do. And I’m proud to say that we have the safest aviation system in the world,” he said in a speech posted on the FAA website.