The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association last week released a status update on a number of informal Part 13 complaints filed with the FAA against three U.S. airports, Chicago Waukegan (UGN), Florida’s Key West International (EYW) and Asheville Regional (AVL) in North Carolina.
The association dropped its complaint against Chicago Waukegan Airport in late January after that airport’s management team chose a “self-help” option to address pricing and access issues without a further nudge from the FAA. AOPA said, however, it continues to press the FAA for resolution of the same issues at Key West and Asheville.
The complaints, filed on behalf of seven AOPA member pilots, said these airports “failed to protect the rights of aircraft operators to park at these airports without being forced to pay for additional services they did not need or want,” as well as “egregious pricing practices under minimal oversight.” Each of the airports also operates just a single FBO. Coincidentally, all of the airports in question are served by Signature Flight Support, one of the largest FBO chains in the United States.
Signature argued that its two FBOs (at EYW and AVL) hold an exclusive lease for the entire transient general aviation parking ramp and are not bound by FAA standards designed to protect reasonable access to public ramp space. According to Signature, only the runway and taxiway are considered protected public assets, not any portion of the transient parking area.
Ken Mead, AOPA’s general counsel said, “This would be a scary precedent. Airports would effectively be permitted to hand over the entire parking ramp to a single FBO without competition or other restrictions to ensure reasonable access for users. Aside from active runways or taxiways, there would be no other public assets available for transient operators despite millions of federal and local dollars invested in these airports.”
Interestingly, Asheville’s executive director Lew Bleiweis said no one ever complained to the airport about pricing or access before AOPA’s informal complaint appeared on his desk. With 129 aircraft based on the airport and 30 other people on the waiting list for T-hangar space, “that hardly reflects an uncompetitive environment in which Signature is able to exert monopoly power.” Historically, Part 13 complaints only evolve after parties at an airport are unable to amicably resolve a problem.
Mead agreed it was unusual that pilots came directly to the association rather than dealing with airport management first. “I do not know why the tenants were not complaining to the airport directly,” he said. While some pilots might not understand they should be raising these complaints directly with the airport first, Tom Haines, AOPA’s senior vice president of media and communications, said it’s “often transient pilots who are most unhappy about these kinds of pricing and access problems, people who don’t have those local connections.”
Asheville’s response said the airport did take issue with Signature’s fees and has entered into preliminary discussions to possibly add a second FBO. Asheville found a recently instituted ramp fee imposed by Signature to be “unnecessarily complicated and somewhat opaque.” The airport approached Signature requesting the FBO simplify the fee, and according to the reply, Signature complied. Ken Mead said that while competition is a very strong disciplining factor at an airport, a second FBO would not necessarily guarantee acceptable pricing and access.
The association said it’s working closely with a number of other, as yet, unnamed airports to see if the self-help route might be an option at those locations. AOPA did not rule out filing fresh Part 13 complaints against airports with unresolvable pricing and access issues, but added they hoped to have up-front dialogue with management at those locations in advance of filing any additional complaints.