For one week each summer, the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin (population 66,083) hosts the largest airshow in the world, with more than 500,000 people coming from over 60 countries to attend – bringing in approximately $110 million to Wisconsin’s state economy.
The Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture event brings over 10,000 airplanes into Oshkosh’s local airport, ranging from historical aircraft, aerobatics teams, and private pilots who camp under the wings of their airplanes while enjoying the festivities.
The best way to describe EAA’s AirVenture is as the Mecca for aviation enthusiasts.
Since the 1960s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has manned the air control towers at Oshkosh in order to make sure that the thousands of planes descending upon the city land safely. The FAA’s assistance is especially important given the rather unusual landing procedures during the airshow. For example, pilots have to rock their wings to verify they have received control tower instructions in order to prevent communications jams from the bazillion airplanes flying in all at once.
However, this year, the FAA demanded the EAA pay them $447,000 to provide the safety services they have been performing since the 1960s without any complaints. The FAA threatened to cancel the entire AirVenture event if the EAA did not meet their request.
The EAA released the following statement after agreeing to pony up the money on June 13th:
“Let me be clear: We have consistently regarded the FAA’s move as holding AirVenture and GA [general aviation] hostage this year,” said EAA Chairman Jack Pelton. “[…] Ultimately, AirVenture’s importance to the entire general aviation economy and community […] 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.
“As far as we’re concerned, this isn’t over. We entered this agreement only because there was no other realistic choice to preserve aviation’s largest annual gathering. We also look forward to FAA’s leadership coming to Oshkosh this year to personally explain their policy to the nation’s aviators.”
“Our quarrel is not with the hard-working FAA employees who do their jobs at Oshkosh,” [Pelton] said. “We understand that AirVenture and other GA events are pawns in the larger sequestration political standoff, so it’s important that we stand together and let those in Congress and the White House know the importance of aviation. We will do that in Oshkosh and we look forward to having those who love the freedom of flight stand with us.”
Not shockingly, the FAA blamed the charges on the sequester, even though the Senate voted to allocate $250 million to the FAA after the initial $637 million cut. Despite the FAA’s claims that they “refuse to sacrifice safety” in the face of budget cuts, it appears that they are willing to do just that to play politics with the aviation community. The FAA has faced budget issues before. Back in 2011 when they faced a reauthorization deadlock, the FAA did not demand extra payments for the safety services the administration champions.
Essentially, the FAA’s charging the EAA for the very services the FAA is meant to provide is a “fee on general aviation.” While the FAA does receive some federal funding, the majority of their budget comes from excise taxes on plane tickets, air cargo, mileage rewards, and aviation fuel. The EAA is funded through membership fees.
This means that EAA member pilots who already give funds to the FAA via fuel taxes are having more of their money go to the FAA through the AirVenture fees handed over to the FAA. This is a form of double taxation on these pilots.
A bipartisan letter sent by the Senate to the FAA stated that it is “completely unacceptable” for the FAA to demand additional payments for the services they have been budgeted for years.
Imagine if your local police department that already receives funding via taxes demanded that citizens pay them for coming out to their homes on calls. This is exactly what the FAA is doing at the expense of the aviation community at large.
If the FAA wants to make a statement to the federal government, they certainly should not be doing it by demanding payment for providing safe travels – which is the very thing the Federal Aviation Administration is supposed to be responsible for already.