With Air Show ATC Fees, the FAA is Following the Airlines’ Lead

By Scott Spangler on July 1st, 2013

Searching for a scintilla of logic behind the FAA’s ATC fees  for the air traffic control services it provides at fly-ins, I realized that the roughly $500,000 bill it sent EAA AirVenture Oshkosh was, in effect, an airline baggage fee. From either source, forget all their trumpeted rationalizations. That nonsense drowned in the fetid swamp of cynicism government and big business long ago created as they redeveloped society so that it met their needs at the expense of their customers.

In other words, they did it because they could.

Government has been trying to recreate an airline business model of charging fees for everything, and sequestration gave them the “authorization” to do it. What’s really ironic is that airline fees, which are not taxed like tickets or fuel, contribute no revenue to the aviation infrastructure, airports, capital improvements, and FAA operations including ATC. Yup, airline fees are a parasite, and to make up for the financial nutrition it sucks from the system, FAA is starting with ATC fees.

According to the Washington Post, since they started the practice, the airlines have collected $12.8 billion in fees for something that was once free. In 2012 they collected $924 million—that’s right, nearly a billion dollars—in baggage fees, a 3 percent increase over the same period in 2011. Oh, and baggage fees are not taxed like airline tickets. With the aviation fuel tax, this ticket revenue pays for the American aviation infrastructure, at least until FAA fees on all the services it provides takes over.

The days when Congress could counteract such fees are waning. With its members, in both parties, behaving like self-absorbed only children, the current Congress is on pace to do less than the one that preceded it. Besides, its members are beholding not to voters but to the big businesses that fund their reelection campaigns. And we get exactly what we deserve because we keep reelecting them.

Some have suggested that incorporating or privatizing ATC might be a way to overcome the inevitable arrival of more fees. That might work in some place like Canada that, according to the Daily Show, effectively regulates its banking industry. As an old-school, professionally trained journalist, words cannot describe the convoluted emotions that come with the realization that the broadcast news source I trust most to tell both sides of the story (so I can make up my own mind rather than being told how to think) is a comedy show that fuels its satire with objectivity.

Come to think of it, I remember reading about people’s concerns when NavCanada moved to the private sector, but honestly in reporting other stories about different companies that work within this system, I haven’t heard of any big problems. But that doesn’t mean it will work here. If you want to know where private sector ATC will go in America, look at the other attempts at solving similar funding problems, Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service. For the reason behind their poor performance, look to a micromanaging Congress.

The really bad news is that there is no quick and easy solution to this problem, and as a nation and an industry, we’re addicted to anything quick and easy, like the bottom line numbers that come with fees on things we once provided as part of serving our customers. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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27 Responses to “With Air Show ATC Fees, the FAA is Following the Airlines’ Lead”

  1. RG Says:

    This is the beginning of anarchy if FAA self generation of revenue is allowed to stand.

    The next to do it will be the Federal Highway’s, State Highways and Local entities. They won’t need tax revenues they will just put a toll booth on every bridge and overpass and start charging for the use of those tax paid for assets. Who needs legislatures to establish tax rates. They will be obsolete. they need more money they will just bill you for it directly.

  2. Chris St.Germain Says:

    Another spot-on column, Scott. No matter that Congress didn’t approve user fees, that’s not relevant. It would seem that roles have reversed: government doesn’t serve the people now, the taxpayer and consumer serve the elite. You’re quite accurate that it’s the fault of the voter. I say, throw out all those bums in Congress. Uh, except for my guy, who is perfect.

  3. Ron Wright Says:

    EAA should NOT have caved to the FAA/Govt. Cancel the fly-in and let the “politicians” eat the results. There would have been so many phone calls/emails that DC would have been shut down!!

    This is nothing short of “holding EAA and GA hostage”..

    The State of Wisconsin would have gone NUTS if EAA had cancelled the fly-in at this late date. Screw the FAA..

  4. frank mitchell Says:

    this fee is nothing more than extortion and a bribe to the FAA. now we know they will take the bribe what will the FAA take to pass a 3rd. class medical exemption.

  5. DG Says:

    I don’t know why EAA just didn’t tell FAA that they didn’t need them. Oshkosh tower is staffed with contract controllers who are more than capable of doing the job–they do it every day. “Dear FAA, thanks but no thanks. We already have controllers.”

  6. Keith Laken Says:

    EAA Caved in. I am canceling my membership and I urge all others do the same. Traffic management should be handled by volunteers, not the government.

  7. Chris St.Germain Says:

    Regarding comments above: I made the same suggestions when recently talking with a CFI friend. Their reply startled me, as I had not heard this elsewhere. Supposedly, the FAA told EAA they could NOT use volunteers, nor contract controllers, nor the usual OSH controllers, or they would cancel their waiver, killing the airshow component. As a volunteer airshow organizer myself, that waiver is all-important to produce an airshow. Seems extreme to me, but this person is not prone to exaggerate, and deals with FAA personnel regularly, so I trust what they told me. Rather outrageous…

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    While I can’t speak to the waiver cancellation issue Chris mentioned, I can tell you that there is no way in the world the contract controllers could handle the airplanes at the show.

    They are trained to work at OSH yes, but AirVenture with 9-10,000 airplanes in a week is a whole other animal. It’s all organized like a giant Swiss watch with the folks at Omro acting as approach controllers to feed airplanes to the people in the tower cab to land.

    The contract folks, nice as they are, have never really been involved in any of this to my knowledge. I think they’d be overwhelmed with airplanes on a standard AirVenture day in about 5 minutes.

    On the fee issue, I agree EAA was held hostage and as extreme as that is, I think canceling the show would have been much worse, especially if it was to make a point.

  9. RV3 Says:

    Cancel the show! This is just the start of FAA fees if this stands. I won’t be going to Oshkosh or any other airshow that caves to the FAA fee.

  10. Rich Says:

    You all make some good points.
    The bottom line is: this was extortion, it was wrong and the feds will probably get away with it.
    They never get punished for any other stupid thing they do.
    The tail is wagging the dog.
    And it needs to stop.

  11. Catherine L Kloess Says:

    The amount of work that went into this event and a government agency changing the rules and the cost at the last minute made it possible for this fee to be imposed. The person who cooked this up needs to be held accountable for their actions. The people that supported the last minute fee should also be held accountable.

    If we do not capitulate to the demands of tyrants taking our resources from us without due warning and due process is what will bring an end to our way of life.

    Fear is a powerful motivator. America is a concept of living without fear and we must recapture that concept and our government. Fear that your event would not be permitted to continue after so much work had been put into the event(mostly by volunteers) is a motivator that allowed the extortion of this money.

    If we held politicians and the people who cook up these fees as accountable for their actions as we pilots are held accountable by the FAA for our actions then we would not have the issues with our government that we are facing today.

    I am not asking to minimize the standard for pilots. We pilots like being held to the standard the FAA establishes. I am demanding that politicians and government employees who have this much control over the fees imposed on an agency at the last minute also be held to our standard of accountability.

    Do not get me wrong here, I like the FAA. Wings meetings for free so that pilots have continuing education. (Again the Wings program is run by volunteers wanting to assist in getting GA to the safest possible activity.) Inspectors that are trying to make the airspace over America as safe as possible have a serious financial value. But the money must not be extracted as it was at Oshkosh.

    A fee such as this should have notice to the people who will have to pay it. Do I understand that this is the first year that this fee was required and that the fee was not set until the event was already planned?

    Give us the name of the first person who uttered that this fee should be imposed, give us the name of the people who started and endorsed this fee and I am sure in a Democracy that these people will be held accountable for their actions. Until someone decides to come forward and state that they are willing to assume responsibility for this fee the fee needs to be returned to the people that it was taken from. Of course where is that money now? Is there an accountability for where this money went?

    The problem is that each person in a democracy must work with their maximum potential for those around them. Punishing the people who put together an event like Oshkosh and all the revenue such an event generates for government agencies (via taxes on the products sold) by fining them at the last minute is not in the best interest of the people.

    I bet the folks that paid this fine worked a lot longer than the standard Government work week and I bet they did not do all of their work in an air conditioned building. I bet the majority volunteered their time.

    The FAA in our area does not work a 40 hour work week (they work longer and frequently my FAA guys are still working at 6:30 pm after arriving at the office at 8 am) and they understand that only via continued commercial activity will we get out of the mess that absurd government spending has gotten us into. As angry as this fee makes us we need to remember that our local FSDO did not create this fee. An individual did and that individual needs to let us know who they are.

    Someone needs to be held accountable. Who decided this fee should be imposed?

  12. Scott Spangler Says:

    There are just a handful of excellent controllers who work the OSH tower the rest of the year. There is just one controller per shift, and there is no way this individual could handle the incoming traffic to three runways, 9/27 and 18/36 L&R. The number of controllers on duty at Fisk, an approach control site west of town, equals (give or take one) the entire staff of OSH contract controllers.

    All of this is non-standard airport operations, and to issue the waiver that makes is all possible, the FAA, rightly, has to ensure that ATC procedures are in place that will ensure public safety in the ground and in the air. Without these safeguards, the FAA cannot issue the waiver.

    That being said, this still doesn’t excuse the FAA from levying the ATC fee, but as I said in my post, the government is just following industry’s lead.

    As for EAA “caving” and paying the fee, never for a moment forget that AirVenture represents a major fraction of its annual revenue. What would do if you’re heading off on a long business trip that determines whether your family will eat for the rest of the year, and the airline check-in agent demands a baggage fee for your carry-on and checked luggage? Would you honestly not pay the fees on principle, losing your job and having a hungry family?

  13. Lou Ronnau Says:

    We did it to ourselves, we are subjects.

  14. Allan Roof Says:

    Iam a longtime EAA member but only for admission purposes of attending the EAA Convention in Oshkosh. Yes, it is suppose to be a members annual convention. So does it need an air show? Top EAA members have supported the election of Obama in the past.
    Making money has been the main goal. Maybe things will change some with the Poberezny’s and other top high paid gun out of there.
    On another not maybe EAA will just have more ARMED National Guard personnel station on PRIVATE EAA property like they did two years ago. No they were not on the County Airport property!

  15. Jeffrey Says:

    Oshkosh is a large corporate event masquerading as a fly in. My tax dollars shouldn’t be used to subsidize it!

  16. Rich Says:

    I wonder if Jeffy would like to be charged a fee at the last minute when the snowplow comes down his street or the fire dept shows up to put out his fire or the cops show up to stop the people that are breaking into his house after he already paid his property taxes?

    I didn’t think so.
    I doubt he understands how this works.
    And I bet he didn’t say a word when money collected from flyers and promised for airport construction was diverted to temporarily pay for a few months of controller salaries.
    No, I didn’t think so.

  17. William Says:

    If you are voting for liberal democrats, you are getting the government you voted for. There has never been a tax or fee that a democrat would not support. So 450,000 this year, what if the FAA says we under charged last year for our services, we need 1 million dollars this year. EAA going to pay it? We have a president who thinks GA is not paying “their fair share”, so who thinks the cost next year will more and who thinks less. Can you say EXTORTION.

  18. Robert Mark Says:

    Liberal Democrats … blah, blah, blah.

    And William, what would you have said if the first of these user fees had been imposed during the George Bush era … the administration who actually first proposed aviation user fees BTW?

  19. William Says:

    Robert, nice deflection from the facts, your messiah obviously does no wrong in your eyes, so let’s stick to facts and give me the list of all the user fees Bush imposed on GA during his presidency. We know what this president has done.

  20. Robert Mark Says:

    I’m not deflecting the facts at all. Obama is a Democrat … this is a stupid fee that I think he’s an idiot for imposing. There, I said it.

    So you answer my question then … George Bush started this whole user fee thing. If it had been a Republican in the White House, would YOU still think it was extortion … yes or no?

  21. William Says:

    Absolutely yes, and I was not impressed with the poor job Bush did as president either. Take a look around at GA as a whole, GA is a slowly dying industry. Look at the ratio of young people as to opposed to older people flying. Young people cannot afford to fly. EAA isn’t the ones going to pay this fee, we are with higher dues, and higher gate fees, and that will lead to less and less people attending these events. Wait till this president’s EPA finally drops the hammer on 100LL and the replacement alternative costs $10 a gallon, how is that going to affect GA? I think we both know.

  22. Robert Mark Says:

    You had me right up til the EPA comment William.

    Allow me to quote Ronald Reagan a bit … “there you go again.”

    That agency is not this President’s EPA … it’s only his for now. The push to wipe out 100 LL was started long before Barack took office.

    But honestly, the aviation industry is behind this switch away from lead as we did in cars 30 years ago. I forgot who was the chief bottle washer in the White House at the time.

    Of course, without a viable alternative to 100LL, your prediction is probably close to reality.

    But of course at KPWK, 100LL costs $8.39 a gal. now.

  23. Maynard McKillen Says:

    Hold on there, cowboys. The FAA demand for Airshow fees is exactly what some of you asked for when you voted for Republican legislators who spouted nonsense about limited government. They gave most of us mere token tax breaks to hide the whopping tax breaks they lavished on the undeserving affluent freeloaders, who sequester vast sums overseas to escape the taxation that would fund the government services, including the FAA, that we used to expect.

    This congress pickpockets the middle class, as ordered to by their wealthy donors, passes legislation crafted by lobbyists, hobnobs with the monied elite, and is busy interviewing for their post-congressional careers as corporate figureheads. If you voted Republican, you either got what you asked for, or you weren’t listening as your candidate spoke out of both sides of his mouth.

    Blaming the FAA is just being lazy. Blaming the administration is stupid and pointlessly partisan. The administration didn’t hold a knife to the throat of Congress and demand sequestration. The administration didn’t invent the stupid, irresponsible notion of sequestration, either. Giving Republican legislators a pass for their complicity in advancing a trickle down ideology that few of them are even intelligent enough to understand is damned irresponsible. And the Tea Party morons? They spout tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Walk the problem back to the source. Being rich, or incorporated, doesn’t grant you status as an uber-citizen. You want a government that works for the middle class American? Elect men and women who put their country first, and not their political party, certainly not some half-baked predatory ideology, and who make these affluent freeloaders shut their fatuous pie holes and do their patriotic duty: pay their taxes!

    If the wealthy and corporations were paying their share in taxes, and not wallowing in this ridiculous status quo state of entitlement that has existed for so long that most Americans confuse it for a level playing field, all talk of sequestration would be vacuous theory, the FAA would be implementing Next-Gen, and the private pilot population would be expanding as middle class aviators would once again be compensated for their labor at an equitable level that provided the disposable income they would spend pursuing their hobby and passion.

  24. Rich Says:

    If the wealthy and corporations were paying their share in taxes,
    HUH?
    The top 8% or so of taxpayers pay what 70 some % of taxes that run the fed and 48% pay no federal tax and thanks to the EITC get a REFUND of thousands of dollars?
    And you think the “rich ” aren’t paying enough?
    YGBSM!!!

    If you deep six the EITC and then make every single taxpayer pay the same flat tax no exceptions for anything, and then cut the BS spending we could be rolling in money, paying our debt and be a economical power house again.
    But since people with idea of what is going on and no financial responsibility get free phones and a host of other nonsense and still get to vote,
    Well, we are screwed.

  25. Rich Says:

    Make that “people with NO idea of what is going on”

  26. Keith Bumsted Says:

    What Maynard McKillen says — +100!

    Did anyone notice that when the airlines starting imposing their fees for baggage and other miscellaneous services, jet fuel prices starting going up at about the same rate so as to simply transfer this new revenue to the oil companies? Or when Social Security taxes were reduced a year ago, retail prices for auto gas marched upward at the same rate as SS taxes were going down? How did that happen?

    If you read the news, you would hear about “supply and demand” or some other nonsense as being behind such events, but it’s all made possible by your elected officials who have been bought and paid for to ensure the continuation of the status quo.

    There’s an Army of lobbyists on K street in Washington who are handsomely paid to protect the wealth, tax advantages and revenue streams of big business, the same bunch that actually write most of the legislation that is batted around in Congress each day. Meanwhile, bureaucracies like the FAA, IRS, EPA, GSA, DHS and many others waste billions on a daily basis in pursuit of their own agendas without regard for the public interest. If you think the FAA’s NEXTGEN program is for the benefit of the flying public, you probably also believe that the Vietnam and Iraq wars were good for the country and that our elected and appointed officials are acting in good faith as they pursue various reforms. What’s much more likely is that they’re simply doing the bidding of their corporate sponsors at the expense of the public interest, and there’s no good way to stop them in the absence of an economic collapse (which may yet come).

    So, settle down and enjoy the government that you put in office. They really are looking out for you. In the end you’ll see that they were right all along and you’ll be better off as a result of their courageous decisions in the face of uncertainty.

  27. Tom Kupferer Says:

    Perhaps if we had an enterprising attorney that would help us file a class action law suit to overturn this user fee imposed without any Congressional authority?

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