A recent lease extension for a major FBO chain at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in Colorado is sounding alarms for pilots and airport advocates. The stifling practices laid out in the county’s lease extension and proposed terms of the long-term lease follow a troubling national trend that will undoubtedly lead to egregious fees for local and transient pilots.
On September 13, the Board of County Commissioners in Pitkin County, Colorado, approved a one-year lease extension for FBO giant Atlantic Aviation. The extension prolongs the negotiation period between the two parties for a long-term lease and came just weeks before Atlantic Aviation’s current lease was set to expire.
According to The Aspen Times, Atlantic Aviation and the County have been in contract negotiations since April—which have been held up by parts of the airport layout plan that have yet to be settled. The multimillion-dollar bid for a 30-year lease that includes base rent and fuel flowage fees is significantly higher than what the FBO has paid in the past. The article also suggests the annual base rent is proposed to increase from $211,829 to $1.75 million, and the minimum annual guaranteed fuel flowage fees will increase from $120,000 to $12 million in the first year and $18 million in subsequent years. If accurate, this represents an egregious increase in annual base rent and a steep 100-fold increase in fuel flowage fees in 2023 alone.
Based on the fees reportedly stipulated in the lease extension, AOPA anticipates that unreasonable fee increases will most certainly fall on the shoulders of local and transient pilots, as well as airport-based businesses. Additionally, since the county has decided that only one FBO should be allowed to operate at the field, there is no way for aviators to avoid these incredibly high fees.
AOPA President Mark Baker submitted a letter to the Pitkin County commissioners on October 9 outlining the consequences of the proposed lease terms and the county’s obligations as the airport sponsor. “As you and the Board of County Commissioners are aware, the Airport Layout Plan (ALP) appears to reflect sufficient land at KASE which could be used to accommodate more than one FBO and it is concerning that the County is seemingly stifling competition by pursuing a lease agreement with only one FBO,” Baker wrote.
The letter from AOPA also points to potential FAA grant assurance violations by the county because of the extension and proposed terms of the long-term lease that have been reported.
Citing the danger of an airport accumulating an excessive surplus of revenue, as well as pointing to the absurdity of Atlantic Aviation’s “habitat fee,” which is collected for the sole purpose of supplementing employee wages because of the area’s high cost of living, AOPA questions whether these actions are in compliance with FAA policy. And since the county has accepted more than $77 million in Airport Improvement Program funds, it could be in violation of federal requirements if the fees collected do not remain fair and reasonable.
“Should the FBO lease be executed as reported, the County will collect at least $558 million— more than half a billion dollars—over the term of the lease,” Baker wrote. “The proposed lease criteria will undoubtedly set the airport on a path toward substantially higher fees for airport users, which will require intolerable and incalculable price increases to be passed down to based aircraft and transient aircraft owners and operators.”
The right to fair and reasonable fees is a top priority for AOPA, as pilots across the country are facing unreasonable and unnecessary fees for parking, picking up passengers, or using facilities at many FBOs. The effort to curb these unfair practices has caught congressional attention, resulting in a proposed amendment in the pending 2023 Senate FAA reauthorization bill. Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) introduced the General Aviation Airport Access Act (S.1847), that would protect pilots at public-use airports, like Aspen-Pitkin, who land and are met with outrageous fees. The bill would require federally funded public-use airports to provide fair and reasonable rates for parking transient GA aircraft and would also prohibit FBOs from charging pilots for services that they did not use or want.
Pitkin County will hold a second public hearing on the lease consideration on October 11. Pilots who wish to express their thoughts and concerns are encouraged to attend, as the committee meeting is open for public comment.
AOPA strongly urges the county commissioners to take action to support fair and reasonable FBO fees and fulfill the county’s legal obligations and compliance with FAA rules and regulations.