By By Arthur J. Negrette | September 1, 2015
We have all heard the adage that ‘you can’t fight city hall,’ much less county or state government. But for owners of aircraft based at a government-owned airport, the good news is that you may not have to. Aircraft and business owners do not have to simply accept an airport manager’s orders that deny certain rights or opportunities.
Often, frustrations or economic losses result when an airport manager resists a tenant’s request to service an aircraft or expand the scope of a business at the airport.
But certain federal statutes, as well as regulations, policies, procedures and contractual provisions established by the FAA, may afford the aircraft or business owner some protection from management decisions that prevent the owner from performing services such as maintenance and repair. Key documents in this regard are the various FAA Grant Assurances.
If the airport manager is running a civil facility that has received FAA grant funds or surplus property from the United States government, that manager is obligated by law always to operate the airport “in a safe and serviceable condition and in accordance with minimum standards” prescribed by applicable federal, state or local agencies for maintenance and operation of the airport. Consequently, an aircraft or business owner’s ‘right’ to self-fuel (or tie-down, maintain, repair, wash or otherwise self-service) his or her aircraft must be balanced with the airport manager’s obligation to establish reasonable, nondiscriminatory rules, standards or conditions to assure the airport’s safe and efficient operation.
Should an aircraft or business owner suspect that an airport manager is impeding or restricting rights to conduct self-service operations, that owner may file a complaint with the FAA detailing the direct and substantial effect of the airport manager’s decisions, rules, actions or inactions.
Thereafter, the FAA will investigate. The aircraft or business owner can help by providing all documentation (such as correspondence, local airport rules and tenant agreements) that supports the allegations. More specific details on the overall process and established FAA procedures can be found in the Rules of Practice for Federally Assisted Airport Enforcement Proceedings.
Here are examples of situations in which the FAA determined airport managers had violated federal requirements:
1. Airport regulations restricted an aircraft or business owner from refueling a specific type of aircraft (i.e., “No refueling of helicopters”).
2. Management denied an opportunity to lease and develop the last available parcel of land on the airport and instead leased the parcel to an incumbent FBO for expansion of its facilities.
3. Airport management granted exclusive rights to an incumbent FBO to operate an aircraft-refueling facility on the airport by enabling that FBO to control the only source of electrical power to the airport’s ramps. This denied others access to power for a self-service fueling facility.
4. The airport’s insurance requirements for self-fueling of a tenant’s aircraft required the same level of liability insurance for all users regardless of the size of aircraft to be refueled or the size and number of fuel trucks to be used for the self-fueling operations. Those requirements did not reflect potential risks involved in the proposed self-fueling operations.
5. One tenant was allowed to pay a fuel-flowage fee of 16 cents per gallon to the airport while similarly situated tenants were required to pay 40 cents per gallon.
6. Airport management informed a business owner that his mechanics were required to be full-time employees rather than contracted ones, but the airport’s minimum standards contained no such requirement.
Obviously, not every complaint filed with the FAA will result in a decision favoring the aircraft or business owner. But the process is typically faster—and considerably less expensive—than a lawsuit against the airport. It also often can be the catalyst for good faith negotiations between airport management and tenants.