Aviation group says FAA wants $500,000 to cover expenses at Oshkosh air show

As former CEO of Cessna Aircraft, Jack Pelton has experience fighting a government push toward user fees for the general-aviation industry.

As chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association, he’s back in the fight.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” Pelton said.

This time, federal aviation officials want to charge the EAA to staff the air traffic control tower during its upcoming AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis.

Every year, the air show attracts thousands of planes and tens of thousands of aviation enthusiasts.

This year, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would charge $500,000 for overtime, travel and other expenses for the controllers, Pelton said.

“It’s a real problem,” Pelton said. “They sprung this on us at the last minute.”

Prices are already set and the show has sold thousands of admission tickets.

The show will go on, Pelton said, and the EAA will find ways to pay for it, such as taking it out of the budget for educational programming.

Next year, the price could climb even higher, Pelton said, because air show officials already have been warned by the FAA that the show could be charged for all of the expenses and support services to operate the tower, a figure that could run into the millions.

The show, held the last week in July each year, turns the Wittman Regional Airport into the world’s busiest airport during the convention, organizers said.

To handle the traffic, a special arrival procedure is put into place, which includes getting a special waiver to turn a taxiway into a runway.

During the rest of the year, the FAA contracts with a private firm to staff tower operations at the airport.

The FAA said in a statement that it has not reached an agreement with the EAA over reimbursement for its incremental costs associated with AirVenture.

“The request primarily covers travel and the cost of staffing the home positions of FAA employees working at Oshkosh,” the statement said.

That’s similar to an approach used earlier this year at Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland, Fla., it said.

The issue is much larger than the EAA’s annual show, however,

“They’re already saying this could be standard for all air shows,” Pelton said. “We’re shaking our head.”

The FAA is funded at the same level it’s always been, he said.

“And all of a sudden they’re saying this isn’t their job anymore,” Pelton said.

That may be a debate for the 2014 budget.

“There’s no question that we are being squeezed by the administration trying to get Congress to deal with sequestration,” he said.

The FAA’s Oshkosh action is getting some attention in Congress. This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is asking colleagues to sign a letter opposing the fees to the FAA administrator.

Earlier this year, the Wittman airport was on the FAA’s list of airport towers targeted for shutdown because of budget cuts.

The towers stayed open, however, after Congress reworked FAA funding in response to scattered delays because of furloughs adopted as part of the cuts.

The delays showed the nation why the sequester, as designed, is “flawed public policy,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association last month.

Congress gave the FAA the financial flexibility to cancel the furloughs for the remainder of the fiscal year and to keep the towers open.

“But the fix is just a Band-Aid,” Huerta said. “It only lasts until the end of the fiscal year. It doesn’t address the long-term fiscal challenge that we have.”

The FAA must still cut $637 million from its budget. It was able to transfer $253 million from the airport grant program, he said, but it must cut out $384 million from other areas by Sept. 30.

“This means we have to maintain cuts in areas like staffing, hiring, awards, contracts, training and travel,” he said.

Congress has taken care of the situation until the end of the fiscal year.

But unless the sequester is permanently fixed, it will last for 10 years, Huerta said.

“Congress must cancel it and give us the funding certainty that will enable us to properly plan our future activities as an agency,” he said.