Going Direct: AOPA Picks A Fight: Why We’re Rooting For The Good Guys

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.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

17 thoughts on “Going Direct: AOPA Picks A Fight: Why We’re Rooting For The Good Guys

  1. Good for the AOPA and good news for us little guys who like to fly to the fun places but feel financial pain once we get there. Florida is a state with over 100 airports and fuel prices are very reasonable and competitive…except for Key West. I grit my teeth every time I fly into Key West due to the high prices of fuel, tie-down and services. Why, I ask, is it so high? The answer I have heard is, “because they can charge it”. On the flipside of this price gouging are places like KMVY, Martha’s Vineyard. Fuel prices are reasonable, tie-down is reasonable and the service is top notch. They are located in a high end market yet choose to operate as a responsible business. Let’s hope that enough of a groundswell gets some attention of the businesses in question.

  2. Poor Signature. I wish AOPA would go into the FBO business and compete with these robber barons to lower our fuel prices. Since Signature has lost at John Wayne, will the next FBO not charge the same prices and fees that were charged before? Will the next FBO hire unemployed Signature employees at the same pay that Signature was paying them? The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is taking the position that someone, other than the user of the service, can determine what prices and fees should be. And they are very wrong. Central planners always are.
    AOPA describes the prices in hyperbole as; “egregious”, “outrageous” and “over the top”. Then, AOPA uses emotional terms like “fair” and “reasonable” to describe their remedy. AOPA sets up a mechanism for easily registering the complaints to AOPA. AOPA is ginning up a problem that they claim only government can solve. Look out for even higher prices and less service. Maybe some crooked politicians are exposed, but someone please call me when prices go down at John Wayne.

  3. Look into what Palm Beach County Airports charge–$2.50 to $3.00 more than Air Glades Airport to the west in Clewiston Florida. I live in Palm Beach and have a hangar at F45–I fly to Air Glades all the time even with a $.75 discount I receive because I house my plane there.
    Paul Hershorin

  4. I avoid any Signature FBO whenever possible (C-172N). As stated in the article, I’ve been charged upwards of $50 for a 2 hr. tieddown (actually not even a tiedown, just a parking fee). I’ve learned my lesson after experiences at 3 different Signature FBOs in the west. They have maximized profits with high gas prices and exorbitant tiedown/parking fees with no regard for the pilots or planes. Personally I feel they should not be allowed to operate at any airport without at least one other FBO on the field.

  5. Yesterday I flew to Baltimore. It is more convenient for our relatives to pick us up at BWI. But I called Signature and they said per night parking was $80. I already knew avgas was $4.00 more than MTN. No thanks. I went to Martin State.

  6. Another fight that needs to be reopened is the removal of the 3rd class physical requirement for the Private Pilot License. It needs to be removed completely, not just “watered down.”

  7. Signature at Key West is completely out of control. I live in Florida and fly down there at least once a year. I don’t remember all of the fees they charged me a couple of months ago, but it was mind boggling. Handling fee, ramp fee, processing fee and then high gas prices to boot. I understand the higher gas price as it is trucked down from Fort Lauderdale, but these other fees are simply gouging as they are the only game in town. It was a much friendlier place as Island City.

  8. Signature is one of the worst……don’t even shut down and pay sometimes several hundred dollar handling charge, and fuel is always higher. Signature at APA is almost always empty while Jet Center and TAC Air is packed…….I wonder why. But its not just Signature, there are others like KJAC, only operator on the field. It really is ridiculous……and obvious price gouging.

  9. Aviation fuel prices are market driven with one major difference, free enterprise is competing with government subsidized operations. Small emerging airports are usually subsidized and operated at a loss by the local governments and often offer the lowest fuel prices. When the airport grows to the point that free enterprise moves in, the prices generally increase. Luckily for us, the FAA Airport Improvement Program Grant Assurances prohibits granting a monopoly to any FBO at their sponsored airports. Anyone who wants to build another FBO at a sponsored airport is free to so, however they must provide the same services and facilities as the existing FBO. No, you can’t come and cherry pick, but if you want to match the existing facility you are allowed to do so. Unfortunately, the numbers usually don’t support the return on this investment. Pay the price or take your business elsewhere. If you think you can build and operate an FBO by selling cheap gas then by all means do it!

  10. From my own experience I too find Signature service and pricing unacceptable. I flew my C-182 to Miami on a flight from Wisconsin on April 23 -28 2017 to join my group on a cruise and chose Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport (KOPF) to land at as being closer to the ship docks. I knew that it would be a little higher there but was completely shocked. In my 5 nights there Signature charged me a $60 Handling Charge that they credited back to me as a handling discount after I complained. That was nice of them. However I did pay a per night Ramp Overnight fee (outside) for 5 nights at $31.00/night plus a $10.85 Tax
    TOTAL TIE DOWN. $155.00
    I bought 62.90 Gallons 100LL at $6.716/gal total $422.40.plus FED EXCISE-100LL at $.0.19/gal. or $12.20 plus ARPRT Fee 100LL $.080/gal or $5.30
    TOTAL FUELcost $6.986 per gallon or $439.42.
    plus STATE SALES TAX $10.850
    Total cost for 5 nights and 62.2 gallons of gas $605.52.
    For the record, I am a 3700 hour Private, Commercial, Multi, Instrument, Complex, High Performance, tail dragger pilot with my CFI and have been in 38 of the lower 48 states with my 182. And from my experience I found the service at Signature was bad, the facility was a dump. pricing was outrageous and it took a half hour to get a cab there. And they didn’t care. Needless to say I’ll never go to Signature again.

  11. This is all a result of private equity getting involved and leveraging the buyout of these FBO’s. The thing about FBO is they are a cash flow machine. You highly leverage, jack up the prices and the return on equity goes through the roof. Some guy sitting behind a desk in New York or London or wherever makes a fortune and has no vested interest in aviation whatsoever. You need a captive customer base to be successful however. Fair competition can fix this.

  12. The most recent pricing reports indicate that Signature Flight Support at KMSP for 100LL is $8.07 per gallon and $5.85 per gallon for 100LL at KSTP.

  13. Chicago Executive Airport (formerly Palwaukee) has high gas prices. I often go flying with my friend who has a C-310. We often fly to Burlington Wisconsin for gas. The enormous difference in fuel makes the flight itself cost about $30, for an hour of C-310 time just for gas. I know you also have to figure in at least the normal fuel price in addition for the engine and other maintenance kitty.

  14. Check out Atlantic Aviation at KMTJ, KASE, and KRIL in Colorado, serving Telluride and Aspen. They charge from the high 6’s to over $7 for jet A plus landing fees, overnight fees and facilities fees. Right next to KMTJ is KAJZ which has a great runway, no fees and Jet A for $3.50. These prices are onerous to say the least, makes it hard for anyone other than corporate travelers to go there without getting whacked…

  15. AOPA needs to pick a fight about the extortion fees being charged by flight examiners. One guy out west, tried to extract a $260 reservation fee from students at ATP, in addition to $600 for the check ride. He was given the exit door. Most of these guys act like free agent mafia – it’s a shakedown operation like RICO violations.

  16. I to am not a fan of high price gouging, however we also look at what the airport itself charges the FBO for space rent insurance requirements and taxes. I was involved with the Port of Portland at KTTD helping a good mechanic secure a new lease on a building he had been a subtenant in. We negociated a fare lease rate but the taxes and insurance the Port required tripled the monthly rate and he moved. The building is still empty but the Port does not care because they are moving to remove the airport all together and lease the ground for industrial. We in aviation are yet again the ugly step child to the Port.

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