Touching a Raw Nerve: EAA agrees to pay $447K to FAA for AirVenture

Skywriting at Oshkosh, AirVenture 2008


The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has been hosting an annual Fly-In/Convention since EAA was founded in 1953. In sixty years, this has grown into a huge GA event, and has been held at Oshkosh since 1970. It has indisputably become “The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.” For thousands of GA enthusiasts, it is a destination, an airshow, a family reunion, a party, an informational swap-meet, and a commercial bazaar. It is a very big deal. EAA claims the event attracts roughly 10,000 aircraft and a half million aviation enthusiasts (and family) each year.

The Sequester Threat (again!)

This year, related to Congress’ cost-reduction sequester, FAA announced EAA would have to pay $500K for ATC services. Needless to say, this caused a stir. And, that stir provided FAA with a three-week PR campaign which helped further FAA’s power to withstand the sequester. It finally came to a happy conclusion when a ‘settlement’ was announced on 6/13/13. EAA agreed to pay $447K; FAA agreed to provide their controllers, and to minimize their participation in the ‘Persona Non-Grata’ vendor booth. (…well, actually, FAA as much as promised that, because of the sequester, they will not be able to have much participation in the AirVenture dunktank vendor booth  this year…)

Depending on what you read, FAA sends 64-80 controllers to AirVenture each year, selected by FAA management at the Central Service Area. These are all full-time FAA  controllers/supervisors, so the selected employees would be paid anyway, if they were not temporarily reassigned to AirVenture. Thus, the $500K FAA demanded from EAA was not for controller salaries, but for the added expenses related to working at AirVenture, such as lodging, per diem, and overtime.

The sequester continues, so next year we can expect a repeat. On the other hand, this was the delicate year, because FAA threw the wrench at EAA so late, just two months before the big event. Next year, EAA will anticipate covering these costs, and budget accordingly. Or, they will throw their efforts at getting Congress to fix this problem.

A Chronology…

Some online research produced the following details, which illuminate how the AirVenture charge came to be, and the repercussions it is having on GA and FAA:

  • On 5/13/13, FAA officials informed EAA officials that they intended to collect $479K as fees to cover expenses for the provision of ATC services at AirVenture.
  • On 5/20/13, FAA Administrator Huerta spoke at a NATCA Legislative Conference. Much of his speech focused on stroking NATCA and expressing concerns about the need to prepare for the next round of sequester battles. His speech included this:
    “Although the furloughs have been cancelled, the sequester continues … and we still have to cut $637 million.  Yes, we were able to transfer $253 million from a source previously off limits, the airport grant program.  But we still have to cut $384 million from other areas by September 30.  This means we have to maintain cuts in areas like staffing, hiring, awards, contracts, training, and travel.”
  • On 5/22/13, AOPA posted an article about FAA’s proposal to charge EAA the $500K. AOPA President Craig Fuller noted that FAA traditionally covers the cost of deploying their controllers to Oshkosh, and this latest news was ‘extremely troubling’. (ANN) also posted on 5/22/13, with excerpts from EAA published statements.
  • There was some precedent. The winter GA Fly-in/bash in Florida, Sun ‘n Fun, was slapped with a surprise bill from FAA, seeking to collect $285K in extra costs for ATC. But, that surprise bill was issued in April, when FAA (and NATCA and the rest of the Av-Gov Complex) were ramping up the campaign to push back against the sequester … even if it meant holding the airspace system hostage).
  • On 6/6/13, a group of 28 Senators signed a letter and sent it to FAA Administrator Huerta. The letter expressed concerns about the late imposition of these fees, which had never been demanded in the sixty years of this annual event. It included: “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.” The letter also asked FAA to provide a response no later than 6/13/13. [6/21/13: when this NOTE was posted, aiR was awaiting a call back from the office of Senator Baldwin (WI), to confirm if FAA did or did not respond.]
  • On 6/8/13, the editor at posted an article, summarizing the whole situation and encouraging pilot-readers to join in on a variety of petitions. There was no sign of any ‘fix’.
  • Then, on 6/13/13, EAA announced they had reached a ‘one-time’ agreement, that had them paying $447K to FAA. Two excerpts:
    “…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.” and, “…refusal of FAA services or not meeting the agency’s standards would have caused the FAA to void the necessary waivers that are essential for Oshkosh air operations during the event….”
  • On 6/18/13, J. Mac McClellan posted an article questioning whether the recent rash of FAA sequester threats shows a need to finally privatize FAA. Historically, the GA community has resisted privatization, but the success of Nav Canada coupled with the repeated failures of FAA to serve the Public, may be stirring real change. Mr. McClellan is the former editor-in-chief at FLYING magazine, and is highly respected. 
  • On 6/19/13, Bob Poole at Reason Foundation published Issue #104 of ATC REFORM NEWS, which closed with this line: “…it may just be that the long history of GA groups defending the FAA status quo and opposing ATC corporations is coming to an end….”

It seems fair to assess that FAA is trying to use AirVenture to leverage power against the sequester threat; it also seems fair to assess that, because FAA billed Sun ‘n Fun for $285K, they almost had to bill EAA comparably. What surprises me is that EAA was willing to pay so much. I would have expected FAA to meet them halfway, especially if they could get EAA to accept that a $250K payment for 2013 included recognition that EAA will plan to pay the full amount in the budget-constrained future. Then again, this may be exactly the agreement FAA was angling toward, and EAA refused to accept…

At any rate, we can certainly expect that if/when FAA officials speak at this year’s AirVenture, they will hear well over $447K worth of aviation wrath, which may drown out their spin-talk and nullify their posturing to defeat the sequester.

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The comments are revealing.

Some people are mad at FAA…

…Some people are mad at Congress…

…Some people are upset with EAA (who honorably did not censor out those comments!)…

…Some people (still) hate the Obama administration…

…but, to some of us who worked (or still work) at FAA, perhaps the most interesting comments came from the controllers and ATC managers with direct experience at Oshkosh, and/or personal familiarity with the process for selecting these ATC ‘paid volunteers’. One comment that really stood out was this:

“…I’m still proud of the job I performed and of my career; however, I long-ago lost pride in my employer.

A wise man once told me …

“When you play ball with the FAA they make you bring your own ball and bat. They will lose your ball and then shove the bat up your ***, as they tell you the game is over.”
…with this gained wisdom I fear
what the future could hold.”

This comment was posted by a retired FAA supervisor, responding to an article blogged by EAA. It sure made me chuckle. In my 22-years at FAA, up until the last few years, I never would allow myself to agree with the many coworkers who expressed deep disdain for FAA. From 1986 until 2009, I always had at least a few ATC coworkers who were bitterly distrustful of FAA.

I only began to understand this distrust after I was locked out in February 2007, and eventually fired 21-months later, in November 2008 … all to force me to ‘voluntarily’ retire when I became eligible in 2009. It was astonishing to see the power FAA had to raise hell. They paid me for most of those 21-months, to stay home and wait while they figured out how to fire me.

Those decades in denial, hearing my distrustful coworkers … well, I learned late: they sure were right.

And, the FAA records I have obtained since (through some persistent FOIA requests) show the extraordinary lengths to which many FAA officials hid key records, thus denying me the factual evidence needed to defend my job. These records prove all the more how corrupt and untrustworthy some FAA officials are. And the larger problem is that FAA’s culture allows this behavior, because nobody is held accountable. Anyway, here’s a link to a chronology that shows the extent of FAA’s corruption, when they strike out against their own whistleblowers.

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The quote above, cautioned what will happen… “…when you play ball with the FAA….” This quote, shared by a retired FAA supervisor, is minimally crude and maximally SPOT ON. Anyone wanting to learn more about the FAA — to understand its politics and what needs to be fixed — should spend some time reading the comments on this blogpost.