Special event fees at Las Vegas valley airports are reaching astronomical heights ahead of the Formula 1 Heineken Silver Las Vegas Grand Prix on November 18. AOPA is looking into the how and why of this disturbing trend, working with the Clark County aviation management, the FAA, pilots, and advocacy groups to ensure this doesn’t become standard practice across the country.
A prior permission required program has been put in place for three airports in anticipation of heavy traffic over the weekend of the F1 racing event. While a PPR or reservation system is necessary for an event of this scale—used to accommodate the high volume of aircraft—the “special event fees” associated with the PPR are alarming.
The special event fees at Henderson Executive Airport and North Las Vegas Airport, whose FBOs are owned and operated by Clark County, are $3,000 in addition to parking and overnight fees. Hundreds of aircraft that are just dropping off passengers then parking elsewhere will still be subject to the special event fee at each airport.
In an October 27 YouTube video that has over 150,000 views, pilot Eric Haase verified the fee impositions at the Las Vegas airports and expressed measured frustration at the lack of transparency from these airports that are taking advantage of pilots.
“I personally see this as a big threat to general aviation,” said Haase. “What’s to stop any county or FBO from charging exorbitant fees if Vegas starts doing this regularly? Who’s going to decide what’s considered a special event and how high the fees can go?”
Haase’s main question was, why? He connected with AOPA early on after learning about these high fees to request the support of AOPA’s airport and regional advocacy teams to investigate why these fees were being charged and how to prevent them from hitting pilots in the future.
On a November 3 call with FAA and Clark County officials, AOPA inquired about the costs associated with such an enormous cost increase in handling aircraft.
Clark County owns five airports, including three where the incumbent FBOs have imposed a special event fee for the F1 weekend. Additionally, the county owns and operates the FBOs which provide fuel, parking, and services at Henderson and North Las Vegas airports. Based on estimates, the county stands to collect more than $1.5 million over the weekend in parking and special event fees, which doesn’t include the higher fuel revenues expected with increased traffic. On the call with AOPA, Clark County officials suggested they didn’t know their exact costs but said the special event fee is based on examples from other events including the 2023 Phoenix Super Bowl, and said the fee would cover additional staff, ground support equipment, and other logistics. The purpose of the fees, according to the county, is to help recover and defray the airports’ cost to host the event. At the same time, FAA rules clearly state that public-use airports that receive federal funding are not permitted to charge unfair and unreasonable fees.
The county pointed to the subjectivity of “fair and reasonable” on the call and offered Jean Airport—a 30-mile drive from downtown Las Vegas—as an alternative reasonable option that has no PPR or special event fee. Jean Airport is a nontowered airport with no instrument procedures, self-service only fuel, and no rental car or other services. Additionally, the airport has a skydiving drop zone 4 miles away, significant glider activity, and parallel runways. This prohibitive special event fee at Harry Reid, Henderson, and North Las Vegas airports is effectively denying access for GA aircraft at three publicly funded airports, which have towers, instrument procedures, rental cars, and staffed FBOs providing an array of services.
“Part 91 operators, regardless of what aircraft they are flying, cannot pass these enormous costs along. These practices are simply limiting access to a public-use facility and that is wrong. The FAA has a responsibility to enforce current rules against these unfair and unreasonable prices,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “I understand the reservation system, but I can tell you it doesn’t cost $40 one day to park an airplane and then thousands of dollars the next day.”
Clark County has agreed to disclose to AOPA and the FAA the total special event revenue collected from the F1 weekend and the specific expenses incurred to accommodate aircraft parking.
While fees for the Grand Prix weekend are set, and already being collected, the focus turns to the future of these special event fees. The primary concern is that these special event fees are becoming more and more prevalent, and the FAA needs to enforce the laws already on the books. Las Vegas is hosting the 2024 Super Bowl, set for February 11 at Allegiant Stadium. The county has expressed this event will also require another PPR and an egregious special event fee. Additionally, F1 events are expected to occur annually.
The increased fees at Las Vegas valley airports are part of a troubling trend and endemic of a larger issue that has been at the forefront of AOPA’s advocacy efforts. In Colorado at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, a one-year lease extension granted in September for FBO giant Atlantic Aviation laid out proposed lease terms that would raise the annual base rent from $211,829 to $1.75 million and increase the minimum annual guaranteed fuel flowage fees from $120,000 to $12 million in the first year. The annual fuel flowage fee would then increase to $18 million in subsequent years.
While the Atlantic FBO general manager expressed to The Aspen Times he does not intend to see these increases passed on to local and transient pilots, the shocking increase in annual base rent and 100-fold increase in fuel flowage payments to the airport is concerning for pilots and advocacy groups who wonder where the money is coming from or how the FBO will make up for these increases if not by raising fees on pilots.
AOPA’s advocacy efforts are supported by nearly 600 aviation organizations that are passionate and eager to see fair and reasonable FBO fees at our nation’s airports. AOPA receives calls every day from pilots across the country who are facing unreasonable fees. Each concern is addressed individually and AOPA is also pursuing legislation in Congress to ensure any fees collected at airports, including FBO fees, are fair and reasonable.
In congressional testimony earlier this year, before the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Baker expressed strong support for several GA provisions in the 2023 FAA reauthorization bill and reemphasized the need for fair and reasonable pricing at FBOs and airports. “Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from pilots about this,” he said.
Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), a private pilot, has proposed an amendment to the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill, which is still pending in committee, that would require airports and FBOs to charge fair and reasonable parking fees. The amendment faces strong opposition from airport and FBO representatives who believe their respective revenue models determine what fair and reasonable is. The lion’s share of pilot complaints mention large chain FBOs owned by private equity firms that have reported substantial profits.
Budd was forced to clear up any misinformation on his amendment after a similar bipartisan amendment in the House, offered by Reps. Jay Obernolte (R-Calif.) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.), both private pilots, was prevented from consideration after airport associations and others campaigned to strike it down. For Baker, AOPA, and nearly 600 aviation organizations, it is an issue that will remain at the forefront. “We will continue to fight for establishing additional guardrails around these fees and we need the FAA to enforce what is already on the books. We certainly support our airports and FBOs, but this needs to be addressed,” Baker said.