When it comes to fighting against FBOs that overcharge for fuel, it always seemed like a fight the little guys like us couldn’t win. Good news.
Sometimes member organizations make a fuss about something because it makes the members happy, and sometimes they do because they think it will encourage change, even if the growling doesn’t have any actual teeth. In the case of AOPA’s stand against what it calls “egregious” pricing at certain FBOs, the organization is an actual junkyard dog.
AOPA earlier this week filed Part 13 complaints against three FBOs that were among the “most complained about” in the nation. They are Waukegan, IL; Key West, FL; and Asheville, NC. In essence, a Part 13 complaint alleges that the businesses are not living up to their end of their FAA grant assurances by providing reasonable services.
The organization filed the complaints against the Signature FBOs at Waukegan, Asheville and Key West along with seven partners, operators who have flown into businesses at those locations and claim unfair pricing practices. One pilot complained that at Waukegan he was charged $236 in fees after parking his light plane for two hours. Signature lowered the price to $90 after the pilot complained, AOPA said in its official release.
But the question is, what will happen if the FAA rules in AOPA-et al’s favor? They can actually go after the airport’s governing bodies’ grants, and it’s not a longshot either. Orange County John Wayne International began the eviction process for Signature, which Signature quickly appealed to the FAA. The great news for pilots: The FAA upheld the Orange Country airport commissions move.
In a predictable move after news of AOPA’s legal challenge went public, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) sent “letters in response” to the action. If you’re thrown off by the overreaching name of the organization, we can clear that up. NATA is a lobbying organization for FBOs. In its letter, NATA claims that AOPA’s complaints are counterproductive in an industry that needs fixed base operators. NATA executive vice president Bill Deere made the further claim that “The FBO services market is and remains a very competitive industry,” and added that “those within the aviation industry fully understand that FBOs compete vigorously with each other on price, service, and quality of facilities.” Deere offered no supporting evidence for that assertion.
Pilots, in fact, know that this is not the case. At regional and larger airports where there is steady business jet traffic, the prices FBOs charge for fuel are often so high that they defy any rational explanation save profit taking. At Kissimmee, an airport I used to fly into frequently, there was a single FBO on the field, Kissimmee Jet Center, among three or four fuel providers that actually competed, charging prices that were sometimes as much as three dollars per gallon less than its competitors. Today as I write, the published prices at Kissimmee Jet Center are more than $2.50 per gallon lower than its competitors, Signature Flight Support and Odyssey Aviation. So why didn’t pilots just go to that FBO? They do, and I always did. But the point is this: Where there are outliers like Kissimmee Jet Center, the argument that FBOs like Signature have to charge higher prices there are disproven.
I don’t blame the NATA for making its case, however nonsensical it might be. Making such arguments is the reason the organization exists. But when it comes to determining who’s right in this butting of heads, I’d apply the sniff test. If its smells like the aviation fuel is way too expensive, believe your nose.
And hats off once again to AOPA for standing up for its members. I just renewed my membership, and this is one of the many reasons why I do so every year.