Flying magazine Editor in Chief Stephen Pope penned an April 3 editorial criticizing AOPA’s efforts to fight unreasonable fees at certain fixed-base operators, despite evidence and recent comments.
Pope wrote, “evidence seems to suggest that AOPA’s numbers don’t quite rise to the ‘outrageous’ pricing levels for piston airplanes that the association is touting to its members.” However, previously published data, which was ignored by Flying, indicates that unreasonable FBO fees have a detrimental impact on piston and turboprop airport operations.
AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker said, “Pilots should always have reasonable access to publicly funded airports, but based on our research and what we’ve heard from members, that isn’t always the case. It is unacceptable for users to pay steep fees for services they don't need or be forced to land elsewhere when the airport is taking millions in federal dollars.”
The damage caused by some FBOs charging egregious prices can be reversed. Following complaints from pilots over unreasonable pricing, the Orange County Board of Supervisors in California voted to replace Signature Flight Support at John Wayne Airport with ACI Jet, which instituted more GA-friendly policies. As a result, GA traffic is returning to John Wayne. ACI Jet reports selling, on average, three times more avgas per month compared to its predecessor, and GA activity accounted for 68 percent of the total aircraft operations in January 2018, an increase of 40 percent when compared to January 2017.
Ken Mead, AOPA general counsel, said, “We’re doing this because pilots think this is an issue, and they’re right. AOPA has three overarching and driving principles. First, transparency in pricing and posting of fees online. Second, public access options and charting of those options. Third, promote competition.”
AOPA believes the vast majority of FBOs are doing good work, but the association has found the locations drawing the most complaints tend to share a number of common traits. The FBO in question often has a monopoly at an airport, and most of these are part of a large chain. They control 100 percent of available ramp space, charge pilots for services neither requested nor needed, and do not make their fees available online.
AOPA is working directly with a number of leaders at other “self-help” airports including Santa Barbara Municipal Airport in California and Heber City Airport in Utah. AOPA also is collecting and plans to publish FBO fee data to give pilots more transparency of what fees to expect. Unlike most other industries, few FBOs provide fee information online, and some have refused outright to provide information to AOPA to be disseminated to members.
Last year, AOPA filed three Part 13 complaints with the FAA over unreasonable fees impacting access at Illinois's Waukegan National Airport, North Carolina's Asheville Regional Airport, and Florida's Key West International Airport. At all three locations, which are among the most complained-about in AOPA’s inquiry, Signature is the sole FBO on the field and has exclusive leases on all of the available ramp space.
Signature responded to the outstanding complaints, claiming that public asset protections only extend to the runway and taxiway, and not the transient parking area. Mead called the argument a “scary precedent.”
In Asheville’s response to the complaints, the airport disclosed early discussions about allowing a second FBO on the field. Asheville also revealed it requested Signature simplify a fee that the airport found to be “unnecessarily complicated and somewhat opaque.” According to the airport’s reply, Signature complied. Should Asheville or Key West decide to add a second FBO or take other strong corrective action, AOPA will consider withdrawing those complaints as well.
In discussions leading up to publication of the Flying article, Pope said he believes there is a problem and questioned why AOPA had not taken action against Teterboro Airport in his home state of New Jersey. Following publication of the Flying editorial, Signature’s online advertisements were found on Flying’s website and weekly newsletter.
The Flying article also questioned AOPA’s use of a report about a $575 fee at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota in an online illustration. The Flying article focused on the type of aircraft and did not mention that the pilot who reported the fees to AOPA stopped providing charity flights bringing patients to the nearby Mayo Clinic because of the unreasonable fees.
Mead also disputed claims made in the Flying article by the head of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), an FBO industry group.
“NATA's assertion that FBOs are operating in a free market is a fallacy when a single FBO has a monopoly position and controls the entire parking area at a federally funded airport, like at Asheville and Key West. That’s not a free market at work and let’s not pretend otherwise,” Mead noted.
AOPA believes that transient operators should be able to park at these publicly funded airports for a reasonable fee without having to pay for services they don't want or need. Like in Waukegan, one solution is to make an alternative parking ramp area available, giving pilots more options.
When airports receive funds from the Airport Improvement Program, they agree to comply with a series of grant obligations requiring reasonable and nondiscriminatory FBO pricing. In fact, federal dollars can pay up to 90 percent of the costs of various airport projects, but the Flying editorial failed to mention their existence and importance.
Public comments associated with the Flying article overwhelmingly criticized the editorial. One commenter wrote, “This article must have been written by the FBO association.”
Another commenter asked, “Why do private companies have complete control over a ramp area, which was paid for with my tax dollars? Why am I being forced to pay people for services I don't want or need?”
And another wrote, “AOPA is the collective voice of the general aviation community and I wholeheartedly approve of the steps they are taking to make our collective voice known that we want to be treated fairly and have options at airports we use.”
Flying has published numerous articles on the issue and AOPA’s work, including a March 15 editorial by Martha King that said high FBO fees have made a number of airports “inaccessible to many general aviation pilots.” Martha King serves on AOPA’s Airport Access Advisory Panel, a group of industry leaders including numerous FBO owners assembled to advise the association.
Other aviation media have supported AOPA’s position. In an August 2017 editorial, Plane & Pilot Editor in Chief Robert Goyer said certain FBOs “prefer to fit one Gulfstream onto their ramp instead of three or four Skylanes or Bonanzas. At a municipal airport, though, it seems as though the public space should make room for more than just the wealthiest customers. Just saying.”