EAA Objects To $479,000 Federal Bill For Oshkosh AirVenture

June 06--The FAA is demanding almost $500,000 from EAA AirVenture officials to staff the air traffic control tower during next month's aviation convention in Oshkosh.

AirVenture authorities are steamed because the Federal Aviation Administration didn't mention the $479,000 tab until late last month. Pilots and EAA members are upset because they already pay for air traffic control services through an aviation fuel tax. Plus, the FAA includes AirVenture in its budget every year so the money has already been appropriated.

Because the FAA controls the air space over the show's grounds in Oshkosh -- and pretty much all air space across the United States -- AirVenture must obtain a special waiver for the thousands of planes that travel to the fly-in, something that's done routinely every year.

But this year, the FAA told AirVenture authorities that unless they pay the money, a special waiver will not be issued. So -- no money, no show.

"We're being held hostage," EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said Wednesday.

EAA AirVenture attracts more than 10,000 planes and thousands of spectators for its weeklong aviation convention, transforming the small airport in Oshkosh into the busiest airfield in the world for a few days and bringing in an estimated $110 million to the state. This year's event is July 29-Aug. 4.

AirVenture officials vow the convention and daily airshows will be held but say the money demanded by the FAA will be a financial burden.

The Wittman Regional Airport control tower, staffed by FAA air traffic controllers in bright pink T-shirts, handles thousands of takeoffs and landings during EAA AirVenture ranging from World War II warbirds, aerobatic aircraft and home-built planes to antique biplanes, blimps and military jets. It's a popular gig with controllers who volunteer to come to Oshkosh from throughout the Midwest to work at AirVenture; each year there are many more volunteers than the 80 openings.

"They have done it every year as part of their budgeted air traffic control services," EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said. "Their mission is for a safe and efficient air traffic control system around the country. They go where the airplanes are. During that week, that's Oshkosh."

The FAA told AirVenture the $479,000 bill is not for hours worked by the controllers and supervisors in the tower during the convention but for their travel expenses to Oshkosh and the cost to pay for replacements at their home airports. The controllers are paid their normal salaries for their work at Oshkosh.

On Wednesday, an FAA spokeswoman directed reporters to remarks FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made last month in a speech to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. When the sequester threatened to close about 150 small airports earlier this year, Congress allowed the FAA the flexibility to move money between accounts to keep towers open and cancel furloughs.

But Huerta called the fix a Band-Aid that lasts only until the end of the fiscal year. The administrator said the agency must still cut $384 million by Sept 30. Earlier this year, the FAA charged a Florida aviation convention smaller than AirVenture for air traffic controllers.

Wisconsin's congressional delegation has gotten into the fray. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson noted that this year's FAA budget is higher than what the president requested, and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin wrote in a letter to Huerta that the attempt by the FAA to charge fees for air traffic services is like imposing a new user fee on general aviation.

"They're trying to charge twice" for air traffic control, said Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac).

For decades the FAA has supported AirVenture not just with air traffic control but through forums, meetings and outreach to constituents in general aviation. The FAA administrator usually attends and meets with pilots.

"This show has been on the books for years," Pelton said. "Here we are 60 days in advance and now you're going to be asked for a significant financial burden on our event that's already preplanned."

Copyright 2013 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel