Proposed fee irks pilots

To offset an approximate $60,000 deficit in the fiscal 2003 budget, the Manassas Regional Airport Commission seeks to implement a user fee that would affect the owners of the approximate 400 aircraft stored at the airport.

However, many pilots who keep their aircraft at Virginia’s largest general aviation airport want to let the commission know that the small fee could prompt them to move their plane to another location. More than 50 pilots and airport business owners attended a special airport commission public hearing Tuesday night to express their concerns. Many stated that it was not so much about money, as it was about the principle.

“I live 20 minutes from three airports, but I have always based my craft here,” said Fauquier County resident Dewey Davis. “This user fee feels like it is an attempt to drive the little guys out and make us move to a smaller airport. I hope that is not the case. And with most fees, once you start, it escalates in years to come to [offset] other fees.”

If ultimately passed by the Airport Commission and City Council, the fee would go into effect July 1, 2003, and would be charged to anyone who stored an aircraft at the airport for 60 or more days throughout the year.

Those in the aviation industry said this type of fee is not a common practice, and if implemented, Manassas would be the second general aviation airport in the state to do so, after Leesburg.

The fees would range from $50 to $850, depending on the aircraft, with most pilots paying a $150 fee for a single-engine plane.

“The revenues the airport has been receiving has been flat this year,” said Airport Director Juan Rivera at Tuesday night’s meeting. “Expenditures on the other hand have gone up. We (like many airports) have not been immune to rising insurance cost, safety cost, communication fees, attorney fees and electrical bills. We have been hit with these increases and the revenues are not keeping up with those needs.”

Currently, the only revenue from pilots that comes into the airport businesses and does not go to the city or county comes from tie-down fees, which cost less than $100, hanger rental fees and fuel.

Many of the pilots who spoke Tuesday night said they would not be against raising the cost of fuel tax by 1 or 2 cents, which at a 1-cent increase would amount to approximately $21,000 annually, and in the opinion of some would be more fair, in order to fill the gap.

“It is our position that the airport should re-examine its budget and find alternative methods to close the gap without implementing this unreasonable user fee,” said A. Mark Lowdermilk, who was speaking on behalf of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

In a letter to the commission, Lowdermilk referred to the Federal Aviation Administration, which states in its Airport Compliance orders that the terms imposed on those who use the airport and its services, including rates and charges, must be fair, reasonable and applied without unjust discrimination.

City Manager Larry D. Hughes said Manassas Regional Airport is currently one of the cheaper airports for general aviation pilots in the state.

“Most other airports have other fees that we do not, such as a landing fee or a gate fee to name a few,” Hughes said. “The city will want to know if the airport can close the deficit. The first question the city will want to know is if the airport is breaking even this year. Usually with major capital improvements there is a deficit. This year, there have been other costs that need to be covered.”

If a deficit occurs in the airport’s budget, Hughes said, the city picks up 80 percent of the tab with Prince William County paying the remainder.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, the commission decided to table the discussion and said it would hold a meeting to discuss the budget every Tuesday until the end of February when a final budget must be presented. City Council will hold a public hearing regarding the budget April 15 at City Hall.

Staff writer Trina Goethals can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 121.

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