General aviation transient pilots understand that fixed-base operators have largely become the only option for parking at many commercial-service airports. Some of those airports routinely cite security regulations as the reason for the shift in power over transient access from airport management to FBOs.
However, airports have options for reclaiming their governance and offering alternatives directly to pilots, and AOPA wants to help them achieve that goal, the association said in an update on its initiative to ensure airport access and FBO pricing transparency.
Unfortunately, this has resulted in a significant transfer of control over access to public facilities from governmental bodies—which are directly accountable to the public—to private companies. Some FBOs have taken advantage of this power, resulting in unreasonable access fees being imposed at a small number of facilities across the country, Duke said.
However, the trend can be reversed. The TSA’s airport security regulations make other solutions available for serving transient pilots who may not need or want the full range of services offered by the FBO. TSA officials, in discussions with AOPA, welcomed alternatives.
“We are encouraging airport administrations to find alternate solutions, and AOPA can help,” Duke said, adding that airport operators are responsible for protecting reasonable access for pilots.
AOPA is working to provide airport operators clarity on alternative means of compliance for TSA regulations and security directives. The requirements obligate a commercial-service airport to maintain a TSA-approved security program.
“The security regulations and directives lack transparency, and every airport has unique security considerations, but TSA allows many ways to comply,” Duke said. “As customers of these airports, we are speaking up and pushing back against unnecessary access constraints. TSA regulations do not require general aviation pilots to use the FBO, and airport management should not be implementing these rules in a manner that forces pilots to pay the egregious fees being imposed by certain FBOs.”
Duke said that certain airports currently provide alternative parking for GA aircraft using a dedicated gate to allow transient pilots to egress and ingress without going through the FBO.
In exchange for federal grants under the Airport Improvement Program, airports agree that they will make the airport available for public use on reasonable terms and conditions. Offering a parking ramp as an alternative to the FBO helps the airport better ensure compliance with these obligations. It also introduces competition to the existing FBO, which helps ensure reasonable FBO pricing and fees, a separate requirement under FAA grant obligations.
“AOPA can help airports planning to modify their security arrangements submit an approval request to TSA,” he said. A key component would be a method to ensure that pilots who arrive and park on a transient ramp are positively identified prior to their departure from the area of operation, and when requesting return access.
“Each airport is unique, and TSA policy takes this into account,” he said. “We believe many airports are unaware of the flexibility that TSA allows.”
AOPA is developing a comprehensive list of existing access-control systems in use at other airports and is advocating for a list of TSA-approved systems to be made publicly available.
Longer term, AOPA is urging TSA to initiate rulemaking proceedings that give the public an opportunity to comment on any proposed security directive that would be in effect for more than 180 days.
“TSA regulates commercial-service airports, but its security directives have unintended and significant effects on GA operations and should be debated in a transparent and public manner,” Duke said.
GA and AOPA are no strangers to airport security activism. In 2003, AOPA and the TSA collaborated to implement the AOPA Airport Watch program that has helped pilots at approximately 5,200 GA airports become more security conscious.
In May 2009, the Office of Inspector General issued a report, TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security (OIG-09-69), concluding that general aviation presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security. It said GA security measures have proven positive and effective.
In 2017, the AOPA Air Safety Institute updated its General Aviation Security online course, in its continuing effort to increase security awareness among pilots and airport operators.
GA pilots support AOPA’s bid to shed more light on both FBO pricing and the access solutions available to airports—and they said so during AOPA’s presentation on the issue in April at the Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-in and Expo in Lakeland, Florida.
In a Pilot Town Hall at the event, AOPA President Mark Baker briefed pilots on the Watch List AOPA has published of 10 public-access airports with only one FBO that AOPA believes may be imposing fees on pilots that are unreasonable, while restricting access. All 10 airports receive AIP grants. AOPA hopes to engage in a dialogue with those airports’ leaders to discuss ways to make the airports more welcoming to pilots.
Baker added that AOPA filed three complaints against similar airports in 2017 under the FAA’s procedures for notifying the agency about compliance issues at airports that accept the federal grants—so-called Part 13 complaints.
The filing of the complaints followed months of research and analysis of comments submitted to AOPA. Two of the complaints remain outstanding, against Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina and Key West International Airport in Florida.
“Most FBOs are doing a great job, but there are some locations unreasonably restricting access,” Baker told the Pilot Town Hall gathering. “We are working for transparency, access, and competition where possible, and we aren’t asking for anything free, just fairness.”