AOPA Not Happy With Heber Valley Airport (KHCR) and OK3 Air

Heber Valley Airport

Heber Valley Airport, Utah  (Public domain image)

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has a long history of working hard to advocate for all pilots but especially those in general aviation (GA). Their accomplishments over the 80+ years of its existence are many, and well-deserved and honored.

AOPA members reading this are probably aware of their efforts during the past couple of years to make sure that publicly-funded airports are providing unencumbered access and that fees for landing, fuel, services, and parking are transparent and reasonable to transient GA travelers. Those that don’t were put on notice and AOPA has initiated a dialogue with the sponsors of those airports in an attempt to rectify the situation.

This initiative was begun in response to complaints lodged by pilots with AOPA about FBOs at some airports, often the sole FBO on the field, charging “unreasonable” fuel prices as well as tacking on fees for services not requested, wanted, or received. Such fees were sometimes added to the bill without prior notice and surprised pilots had to either pay up or try to argue their way out of them.

To bring more attention to the issue, in April 2018 AOPA announced its “Airport Access Watch List” identifying 10 airports where they believed the only FBO on the field may have been taking advantage of their position as the lone service provider and hindering reasonable access due to their pricing and fees (1).

The airports named on the list stood out as potential offenders based on data collected in a year-long study conducted by AOPA’s research team. The team gathered data points such as the number of FBOs, ramp access and control, changes in the number of operations, various pricing and fees pilots faced at those airports, and more. To be sure, many airports fit the general criteria used in the study, but those making the list were deemed especially troublesome.

It might be instructive to ask, where and how did the complaints originate? Well, in 2017 AOPA sent out a survey to its membership soliciting feedback on airport and FBO operations around the country. The survey results were used as a basis for the larger-scale research study. How many complaints were received? A total of 219 (2). With a total membership base of about 385,000 as of 2012 (the most recent available number), that represents about 0.06% who felt strongly enough to register a complaint.

A number of airports were able to avoid making the list by taking steps on their own to rectify the issue, including attracting more FBOs, adjusting their minimum standards, and so on. AOPA labeled them “self-help” airports and one of them was Heber Valley Airport in Heber City, Utah (KHCR).

HCR does have just one FBO, OK3 Air, an independent, single location FBO in business since about 2000. When HCR was assessed as deficient in providing reasonable access by AOPA, the organization filed a Part 13 complaint with the FAA against it as well as numerous other airports in 2017. AOPA exchanged letters with airport management and initially was satisfied that progress was being made: the city revised its airport minimum standards and was poised to attract a competing FBO.

However, something happened along the way, and in April 2019 the city reversed its stance and passed two resolutions reverting back to the 2010 airport minimum standards and also halting the RFP process for a second FBO.

This did not please AOPA or the airport’s user group (3).

“If you vote to approve these two resolutions tonight,” said Jim Church, president of the Heber user group, “you will fail to do what you were elected to do. You will ignore the good citizens of Heber. You will set this airport back ten years by going back to the original minimum standards.” “You are doing this to avoid litigation. This will not avoid this litigation or future litigation, this will simply kick the proverbial can down the road so somebody else is going to have to make these tough decisions. That’s not right,” Church said in addressing city council.

Ken Mead, AOPA General Counsel, urged city council to rethink its intentions. “We know that OK3, the incumbent and monopoly position FBO, has sued the city in an effort to retain its position and protect its own commercial interests. Notwithstanding this, the city council’s responsibility is to represent the public interest and run this public-use airport in a manner that complies with grant assurances and promotes a competitive environment that will better ensure reasonable and fair pricing for users,” Mead’s letter said.

After city council approved the resolutions, City Manager Matthew Bower sent a letter to AOPA asking for patience while acknowledging the issues. ““The city shares AOPA’s concern about the fuel prices and other services offered by the incumbent FBO, as well as AOPA’s belief that enhanced competition is an effective means of addressing this concern,” said Bower in his letter.

In the letter, Bower also claimed that the FAA has been withholding Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds for three years until the city completes a master plan for the airport. However, this appears to be overstating FAA’s authority because federal law only requires an FAA-approved airport layout plan but not a master plan.

So what exactly is going on at Heber Valley? We’re not sure of all the facts at this point so we’ll reserve opinion until next time, when we also discuss what OK3 Air is saying in its defense.

 

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Contributing Author & Technical Support
Executive Director, Colorado Aviation Business Association

Sources
1. AOPA Announces Airport Access Watch List. Joe Kildea. AOPA News, April 10, 2018. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2018/april/10/aopa-announces-airport-access-watch-list

2. Debunking AOPA’s Myths About OK3 Air. Maggie H. AbuHaidar. OK3Air Website, May 9, 2019. https://www.ok3.aero/Debunking_AOPA_Myths_About_OK3AIR.pdf

3. Utah’s Heber City Hits the Brakes on Competition. Joe Kildea. AOPA News, April 12, 2019. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2019/april/12/heber-hits-the-brakes-on-competition