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FAA under surveillance

GAO investigating agency's oversight of pricing, transparency, and airport access

After more than 1,000 complaints from pilots, 10 named airport "watch list" locations, and three complaints to the FAA, AOPA’s initiative to expose egregious fixed-base operator pricing has caught the attention of the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Federal Aviation Administration is one of the many government agencies that have influence over general aviation. Photo by David Tulis.

The congressional watchdog is investigating the FAA’s oversight of certain FBOs located at publicly funded airports across the country. As an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, the GAO examines how taxpayer dollars are spent. The investigation will examine how well the FAA is exercising its responsibility to oversee airports that receive Airport Improvement Program funds and the assurances that come with the grants, including the requirement that airports and businesses on them must charge only fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory fees and prices.

According to Politico, the GAO has been looking into issues related to FBOs since the spring, at the request of House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.). Now, the investigation has gained the support of Reps. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) and Steve Russell (R-Okla.), who sent an Oct. 16 letter backing the investigation.

As frequent users of our nation’s general aviation airports, the congressmen wrote, “At a minimum, we believe all FBO fees should be transparent and easily accessible online for pilots.”

The congressmen also pointed out that the FAA should require airports to include, if applicable, available transient ramp space on their airport charting diagrams—an issue AOPA has been advocating for some time. On Oct. 10, the heads of five major GA groups, including AOPA, sent a letter to FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell asking the agency to standardize the labeling of airport ramp space and ensure that airport diagrams are clearly and accurately marked so pilots are better informed about available parking options.

Lastly, the letter said, “Pilots should not be charged by airports or FBOs for services they did not request or use.”

Over the past two years, AOPA has been working to learn about and ensure that public airports financed by tax dollars provide fair pricing and are accessible to all segments of GA.

“As we’ve said since the beginning, most FBOs do a great job of providing service to pilots at reasonable costs. Our attention is focused on the small minority—often large chain FBOs with a monopoly position at an airport—who choose to abuse their positions to the detriment of pilots who funded these airports,” reminded AOPA President Mark Baker.

In its own investigations, AOPA has received more than 1,000 complaints from owners, operators, and users of the system, prompting it to release its Airport Access Watch List in April. The list included 10 airports that fit a certain profile. All 10 Watch List locations receive federal funds from the AIP, all have one FBO with a monopoly position, and all have issues with fee transparency.

After months of AOPA calling on the FBO industry to be more transparent, Signature published handling and infrastructure fees for only piston aircraft online at most of its U.S. locations. However, rates for parking, tiedowns, and security are withheld.

Other airports have taken steps to improve access, pricing, and transparency issues on their own. Casper/Natrona County International Airport in Wyoming is one of those. In July, the airport established transient ramp space for aircraft tiedowns and gave pilots clearance to access a walk-through gate to avoid paying for FBO services they don’t need or want. AOPA removed Casper from its Watch List and now calls it a “self-help” airport.

While many airports are taking steps to alleviate issues with transparency and access, there is still much work to do. AOPA considers the GAO investigation is a step in the right direction.

Baker said, “We applaud Congressmen Russell and Abraham for their support in ensuring that airports are accessible and that FBO fees are transparent. While we want FBOs to remain profitable, airports that receive government funding need to be transparent about what pilots should expect when they land.”

Amelia Walsh

Communications and Research Specialist
AOPA Comms and Research Specialist Amelia Walsh joined AOPA in 2017. Named after the famous aviatrix, she's a private pilot working on her instrument rating in a Colombia 350.
Topics: Advocacy, FBO Fees, Airport Advocacy

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