Airport Touch-n-Pay Idea Meets Cheers — and Doubts

By Mike Lednovich

Members of the city’s Airport Advisory Commission (AAC) faced a three-quarters-full meeting room Thursday as they heard a proposal that would charge pilots a landing fee at Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport.

Normally during routine AAC meetings only a handful of people are on hand, but the issue of instituting fees brought out both supporters and those opposing the proposal.

The approach to begin charging pilots for landing at the city airport was brought forward by Airport Director Sam Carver.

“I never thought we could do this, collect fees at a general aviation airport,” Carver told the AAC. “Now, with technology and requiring everybody (aircraft) to have transponders, it makes it easy. It’s a change that’s coming and I believe in the next few years everyone (airports) will have this (landing fees).” 

Carver told the AAC that Vector Airport Systems’ program would generate about $200,000 yearly from landing fee charges. Local pilots who hangar their aircraft at the city airport would be exempt from the fees.

Helena Glenn walked AAC members through how Vector’s program, called PlanePass, works at more than 60 airports around the country. She said 12 airports in Florida are currently using the system.

PlanePass is an automated system that records the tail numbers of aircraft and then bills the airplane owners for landing at the airport.

Glenn said PlanePass requires no initial investment from the airport and is operated as a turn-key service. She said Vector currently is billing a mix of landing, parking, and customs fees.

She detailed how PlanePass uses a variety of aircraft tracking and identification technologies that would capture all arrivals at the city airport. Each aircraft’s registration number would be compared to a list of excluded numbers at the city airport so that those aircraft would be eliminated from billing. All remaining aircraft are billed monthly, and the revenue is distributed to the airport, and Vector retains a percentage of about 25%.

PlanePass handles all the customer service, billing inquiries, and account resolution work. The city airport would be responsible for providing Vector the rates to charge, a list of excluded registration numbers, and the authorization to bill on its behalf.

Glenn was asked about how flight schools – which are frequent users of the city airport – handle being charged the landing fees.

“We have not seen any pushback from flight training schools,” Glenn said. “We work with a lot of airports that have a high volume of operations due to flight training. The flight schools pass on the fees to the trainee pilots.”

Nathan Coyle, former city airport director who is now the general manager of Bent Wing Flight Services, which accounts for about 20% of the airport’s revenues, provided the AAC with a list of why landing fees would negatively impact the airport.

He listed the following reasons Bent Wing Flight Services opposed the fees:

  • The airport would lose transient air traffic which in turn would have a negative impact on such revenue as aircraft fuel sales.
  • Bent Wing would be forced to raise their fee structure because of the loss of customers.
  • Landing fees are a financial solution, but the airport has not identified a financial need.
  • The airport has not reviewed potential revenue options other than landing fees.

But Carver later pushed back on the claim there was not a financial need at the airport.

“There’s no shortage of projects (at the airport), we’re financially strong. But you could give me $50 million tomorrow and I could spend it on safety projects in a year. There’s always needs to improve the airport,” Carver said.

He also spoke about the need for more hangars to be built at the airport. Currently there is a long waiting list for aircraft owners seeking existing hangar rental spaces.

“There’s T-hangars, the reason we haven’t built more T-hangars is because we don’t have the revenue,” Carver said. 

Several residents of Parkway North, a community of 40 homes just a half-mile from the airport, spoke to the AAC about noise generated by flight school trainee pilots conducting touch-and-go procedures at the airport.

They agreed that landing fees should be imposed because the flight schools pay nothing for use of the airport.

Vicki Somora told the commission that she had measured the flight school activity.

“The noise (from flight schools) has gotten unbearable,” Somora said. “I counted 20 takeoffs in one hour on runway 13. I fully support implementation of the landing fees if this cuts some of the noise.”

Shari Roan has resided in Parkway North since 2017. She supported the landing fee proposal.

“If the presentation by Vector is correct and more (Florida) airports enact landing fees, I would urge you to consider that because if Fernandina airport does not do that, it seems to me that we’ll attract even more airplanes and flight schools who will continue to use our airport for free and continue to create more wear and tear on our airport.”

Jennifer Radkte said the landing fees were a matter of “safety and finances.”

“It costs money to maintain (the airport) and I don’t want to be paying for it as a taxpayer,” she said. “It doesn’t take a cost analysis to know that it costs money to maintain any type of runway or airport infrastructure. Any type of fees that can be implemented will offset those costs.” 

Rick Howe is a local aircraft owner who told the AAC he has lived within a 50-mile radius of Fernandina Beach for 65 years.

“I’m shocked as a pilot that no one knew about this until this meeting,” Howe said. “I think you’re jumping ahead and maybe there should be some workshops here. The FAA requires that we (pilots) be involved. Everyone talks that this is about revenue, it’s not about revenue. A lot of these folks think this will drive people away. In a business model you can’t have a business plan just to make you revenue and you run the customer away. It’s not going to work to make revenue. So let’s be honest if that’s what the intent is and then maybe there’s another way to solve the problem.”

Howe said several years ago that a flight school had sought to be based at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport.

“The FAA said you cannot deny that flight school from coming here,” Howe said. “So if a flight school wants to cut out these fees, they’ll just move to Fernandina and put 50 airplanes out there and the FAA says you cannot do anything about it.”

Former AAC member and pilot Don Edlin said landing fees are not viewed favorably by general aviation pilots. He said flight schools would circumvent the landing fees by conducting approaches and not landing during touch-and-go procedures.

Edlin said he favored a landing fee model that charged flight schools for pilots doing more than three touch-and-gos during certain time periods.

“At least if you say if you do more than three we gonna put on fee on ya, that will put some muscle on it. Right now it’s a recommendation and they ignore it,” Edlin said. “I’m still against landing fees.” 

Carver said there were several options the AAC could pursue:

  • Do nothing and continue as always
  • Get a full proposal from Vector with an escalating scale based on aircraft weight
  • A compromise where the airport charges per pound, but gives pilots one free landing a day. This option would reduce revenue from $200,000 to $40,000, Carver said.

AAC members requested a list of options for landing fees and also a list of airport projects for the next five years.

AAC member Tom Lockie, a retired airline pilot, said he also wanted to hear from other airport tenants regarding the landing fee proposal.

“At the end of the day we operate under the auspices of the FAA and we want to make sure they can’t say well you didn’t do this, this, this and you didn’t do that,” Lockie said.

After 90 minutes, the AAC voted to place more discussion of landing fees on its May meeting agenda.