With the final responses and replies submitted, the FAA must now consider AOPA’s two outstanding Part 13 complaints. AOPA believes that North Carolina’s Asheville Regional Airport and Florida’s Key West International Airport have failed to protect the fundamental right of aircraft operators to park at these federally funded, public-use airports without being forced to pay for additional services they do not need or want.
AOPA, along with seven affected pilots, filed three FAA Part 13 complaints on Aug. 28, 2017, over egregious FBO pricing practices at Illinois’ Waukegan National Airport, Asheville, and Key West. At each airport, a single FBO controls all transient ramp space and fuel services, meaning the FBOs have a monopoly position and significant power over access to a public airport. AOPA believes those airports and FBOs have failed to fulfill federal grant obligations to protect the airport for public use. The FBOs have instead engaged in egregious pricing practices under minimal oversight, according to AOPA.
AOPA is working with a number of self-help airports like Waukegan to understand FAA grant obligations as well as available options to make their airport friendlier to users.
The two remaining airports as well as Signature Flight Support, the sole FBO at both Asheville and Key West, submitted responses to the FAA disputing AOPA’s remaining complaints.
Signature argued that the two FBOs hold an exclusive lease for the entire transient general aviation parking ramp and are not bound by FAA standards designed to protect reasonable access to public ramp space. According to Signature, only the runway and taxiway are considered protected public assets, not any portion of the transient parking area.
“This would be a scary precedent,” said Ken Mead, AOPA general counsel. “Airports would effectively be permitted to hand over the entire parking ramp to a single FBO without competition or other restrictions to ensure reasonable access for users. Aside from active runways or taxiways, there would be no other public assets available for transient operators despite millions of federal and local dollars invested in these airports.”
The FAA bolstered AOPA’s position in December when it published guidance to airport operators, reminding them of their responsibilities to ensure fair and reasonable access and reasonable FBO pricing.
The airports also filed their own responses to AOPA’s complaints. Asheville argued that airports are permitted to lease all existing ramp space to a single FBO with little to no restrictions, the same argument made by Signature.
However, Asheville also revealed the airport took issue with Signature’s fees and has entered into preliminary discussions to possibly add a second FBO. Asheville found a recently instituted ramp fee imposed by Signature to be “unnecessarily complicated and somewhat opaque.” The airport approached Signature requesting the FBO simplify the fee, and according to the reply, Signature complied.
On March 8, AOPA filed replies to the responses submitted by Signature and the airports. AOPA argued the airports, through their leases with Signature, are in violation of federal grant obligations intended to ensure and protect access to public ramp space.
According to both AOPA replies, “Under the Rates Policy, the fees imposed for the use of any 'airfield' ramp or apron cannot exceed the cost of making the ramp available.” Airports must comply with this requirement when a parking ramp is made available to transient users according to AOPA. However, Signature and the Asheville airport argue that this does not apply to the ramp in Signature’s lease, even though it is the only transient parking ramp at the airport.
If the parties cannot resolve their differences, Mead said AOPA will likely file a Part 16 complaint, which the FAA would respond to with a formal and binding decision. Such a ruling would likely impact many other airports across the country that are configured in the same manner as Asheville and Key West.
AOPA wants FBOs to thrive, Mead continued, but publicly funded airports also have an obligation to protect access.
“To be clear, by and large, most FBOs and airports are treating users fairly, but there are also airports—around 40 and likely growing—where this is not the case,” said Mead. “Users have not invested almost $200 million in federal dollars at Key West and Asheville over the past 35 years to give up access.”
Pilots who believe they have experienced egregious FBO fees are encouraged to submit a report to AOPA.