Since Monday, more than 16,000 people have signed on online petition launched by EAA calling on Congress to oppose the airshow fee. Anyone can sign the petition and contact their legislators until 11 a.m. today.
“We’re not a lobbyist organization. We promote general aviation in our nation,” EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said. “We rarely do call our membership like this, but when we did, they responded in a way we couldn’t believe. It was very gratifying.”
Federal aviation officials “demanded” $500,000 from the Experimental Aircraft Association for air traffic control expenses during its AirVenture convention next month or threatened to pull support for the event, EAA officials said Tuesday.
EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the FAA’s demand for a contract and advance payment is akin to holding the organization hostage in exchange for air traffic services necessary to keep the event safe. The week-long air show draws thousands to Oshkosh during the last week of July each year at Wittman Regional Airport, whose air traffic control tower boasts of being the world’s busiest during the convention.
“We’re being held hostage,” Pelton told Oshkosh Northwestern Media. “They told us point blank ‘If you want to have our support for the event, which you need, you have to sign the contract and write a check.’”
Pelton said there will be an AirVenture 2013 even if EAA has to pay the fee, but said the association worries about the impact on general aviation and other air shows across the country if the request stands. Officials from the FAA’s Great Lakes Region did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
FAA controllers staff the tower at Wittman Regional Airport during the convention that brings thousands of aircraft each summer. During the rest of the year, the agency contracts with a private firm to staff tower operations at the airport.
Earlier this year, Wittman was among small airport towers targeted for shutdown due to budgets cuts spawned by the federal budget sequester. However, when Congress acted to rework funding for the FAA following delays in flights over much of the country last spring, the threat of closure was averted.
Pelton said EAA reached out to Wisconsin Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson and asked them to oppose the proposed fee. He said Johnson’s initial response was outrage and that both legislators have quickly assembled bipartisan opposition to the FAA’s actions.
John Kraus, Baldwin’s communications director, said the senators have support from 27 Republicans and Democrats to co-sign a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta expressing strong opposition to the decision to begin charging air shows.
The letter says the FAA was the only federal agency given leeway to address the impact of budget cuts and notes pilots and air shows already pay for FAA services through fuel taxes that have not declined.
“This shift in policy by the FAA to charge fees for air traffic services is tantamount to an imposition of a new user fee on general aviation. Through the appropriations process, Congress has previously made clear its opposition to new user fees,” the letter reads. “Further, the FAA was the only federal agency to be given flexibility in addressing the impacts of sequestration. As such, for the FAA to demand additional payments for items that have been budgeted for in previous years is completely unacceptable.”
Pelton said EAA expected it might have to pay such fees until Congress freed up additional funds for the FAA to cover all operations in the present budget. Two weeks ago, he said FAA officials notified him such a fee would be requested. He said when the FAA indicated how much it wanted, “We couldn’t believe it.”
“We had hoped cooler heads would prevail and this issue would be resolved,” Pelton said. “Their response was write the check, sign the contract or we’re not sending controllers. It was a much more aggressive negotiation than just trying to work things out.”
EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said the bill worries EAA almost as much as the impact such fees could have on air shows and general aviation around the country.
“This is bigger than AirVenture. They’re telling other similar shows that they’re going to begin charging for air traffic services, too,” Knapinski said. “For other events that are relatively small compared to AirVenture, that could mean some serious costs.”
Pelton said the FAA’s approach could have even more impact beyond the threat it presents to AirVenture’s $110 million economic impact on the state.
“There’s a bigger issue: When you go to the Agriculture office and ask when to plant crops, will they tell you ‘Write us a check and we’ll tell you?’” Pelton said. “We believe this has long-term ramifications if this type of approach becomes common. While it’s a fight that started this month, it’s one we’ll continue to battle to ensure it does not injure an event that’s so important to the Wisconsin economy.”