The Federal Aviation Administration may need congressional approval to charge AirVenture nearly $500,000 for air traffic control costs during this summer’s aviation convention.
Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, on Wednesday questioned whether the FAA has the authority to charge a user fee to events like the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in and convention.
“Making a change of this sort, to begin charging fees, after 60 years of not doing it, I think they don’t have the authority to do it without Congressional action,” Petri said. “Past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have proposed charging user fees for various events. It’s always been the position of our (Transportation) Committee that it should be based on a fuel tax or similar thing that would be fair and easy to administer.”
Petri, a member of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the rest of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation have been reaching out to other House and Senate members to build a bipartisan coalition opposing the FAA’s request that EAA pay nearly $500,000 this year to cover agency employees’ travel, lodging and other expenses associated with manning the Wittman Regional Airport control tower and other air-traffic control operations during this year’s AirVenture Convention.
“We’re trying to be as supportive as we can. I think the whole Wisconsin delegation is doing it, as well as a lot of people knowledgeable and concerned about aviation,” Petri said. “I think there is hope (for avoiding the charge). We’re certainly working on it.”
Elizabeth Cory, the FAA’s Public Affairs coordinator for the Great Lakes region, issued a statement saying the FAA and EAA are discussing reimbursement of the agency’s costs related to AirVenture operations in light of mandated federal budget cuts. The statement indicates the FAA is trying to adopt a similar approach used to charge the organizers of Sun ‘N Fun, a Florida fly-in and airshow. EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said Sun ‘N Fun paid the FAA roughly $250,000 for expenses related to staffing the Lakeland, Fla., airport tower during the April fly-in.
The FAA declined to make staff available for an interview on Wednesday.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta previously suggested Congress needs to give the FAA a proper, annual budget and comprehensive direction if it wants to avoid situations involving furloughs and potential user fees in the future.
In a May 20 speech to air traffic controllers, Huerta said the flexibility Congress gave the agency to avoid across-the-board cuts helped eliminate furloughs and airport tower closures, but the agency still has to find $384 million to cut by Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
Huerta added that Congress needs to discuss priorities for the agency in the context of a comprehensive budget bill if it wants to resolve issues ranging from fees to furloughs.
“Under this situation, it’s hard to have a thoughtful discussion about how to move forward,” Huerta told the air traffic controllers. “Unless all of these things are dealt with, we’re going to be dealing with a very uncertain environment.”
FAA controllers staff the tower at Wittman Regional Airport during the week that it becomes the world’s busiest airport, handling more than 20,000 takeoffs, landings and aircraft operations in a week. The rest of the year, the FAA contracts with Midwest Air Traffic Control Services to staff the tower.
Petri said air-traffic control staffing, like all FAA operations, are funded through fees imposed on everything from aviation fuel purchases to airline tickets. He said he considers charging EAA for air-traffic-control service to be essentially double billing EAA and its members.
He said the FAA might want to take note of how much AirVenture increases fuel consumption and air travel before it asks EAA to cover its costs.
“If you really looked at whether this event costs the FAA money or produces revenue for it because of increased fuel purchases and ticket sales, it could be they owe EAA money if they want to go down that path,” Petri said.