|(photo by Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside)
By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
July 28, 2013 - When the FAA earlier this year demanded payment for air traffic control services at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2013, the move caught most in the industry by surprise.
Thanks in part to the dedicated funding available from existing aviation fuel and airline ticket taxes, aviation programs had been mostly immune from the national political debate surrounding federal budget priorities.
The idea of paying the FAA for ATC services during major air shows simply wasn't on the industry's radar screen.
That changed in the weeks leading up to April's Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, when the agency sought and received a six-figure sum for ATC services. At that time, the so-called sequester of federal spending was in effect. Soon afterward and in response to widespread airline delays stemming from controller furloughs, Congress exempted the FAA from sequestration. That was the end of it, most observers thought.
In mid-May, however, the FAA presented EAA with a draft agreement requiring the association to reimburse the agency $447,924 for staff and support during Oshkosh. The agreement was, according to EAA, not subject to modification. The "take it or leave it" nature of FAA's discussions with EAA effectively meant the association had no choice: Either pay the FAA's demanded fees or the agency would not agree to waive the operational rules that help make AirVenture possible.
The alternative? The end of AirVenture - and possibly EAA - as we know it.
"Let me be clear," EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said in announcing the agreement with the FAA. "We have consistently regarded the FAA's move as holding AirVenture and GA hostage this year. Ultimately, AirVenture's importance to the entire general aviation economy and community, as well as to EAA's year-round programs, was the overriding factor in our response.
"AirVenture will go on, and our attendees deserve nothing less than the best air safety and services we can provide."
The association believes AirVenture is a crucial event for its members, the Oshkosh community, and general aviation. The motto The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration isn't idle bragging: People, pilots, and government officials from around the world annually come to AirVenture because it serves as a showcase for U.S.-based and international aviation innovation and leadership.
In response, EAA executed the agreement with the FAA under protest, allowing AirVenture 2013 to occur.
But its fight with the agency isn't over.
Since then, EAA has motivated 28 U.S. senators to sign a bipartisan letter to the FAA calling the fees "completely unacceptable." A similar bipartisan letter to the FAA signed by 30 members of the U.S. House of Representatives was sent on July 19.
Most recently, the EAA petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals to review the FAA's action and provide relief on grounds the ATC fees placed on AirVenture are unauthorized and unjustified. Congress has repeatedly rejected proposals for aviation user fees and specifically exempted the agency from the federal budget sequestration process.
With that background, argues EAA, how can these fees be either legal or justified?
EAA's petition was filed in early July. No response from the court is expected until after AirVenture 2013 concludes.
Despite how individual EAA members and AirVenture attendees may react to this turn of events, it's important to note the association does not hold FAA employees responsible for their agency's actions. While the FAA's non-ATC presence is sharply reduced this year, that's similarly not the fault of individuals within the agency.
The pink-shirted controllers and other FAA personnel are at AirVenture this year for the same reasons as the rest of us: They love aviation and want to be a part of the celebration. It's possible they have even stronger feelings about this turn of events than the average EAA member - and numerous FAA are members of EAA.
The association has made it clear the fight against these and other FAA fees will continue after this year's AirVenture. During the show, more information on the situation is available at the Welcome Center on AirVenture grounds, where a staff member will assist. After AirVenture, visit the association's website, www.EAA.org, for the latest updates.