- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

The federal government has taken billions of dollars from the taxes and fees paid by airline passengers every time they fly and awarded it to small airports used mainly by private pilots and globe-trotting corporate executives.

Some of these “general aviation” facilities used the federal dollars — more than $7 billion over the past decade — for enhancements such as longer runways and passenger terminals aimed at luring traffic. The money comes with little oversight, and at the expense of an increasingly beleaguered air transportation system.

“They’re making out like bandits,” said Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at Southern California’s Reason Foundation and author of several studies on air transportation costs. “It’s not only that airline passengers are paying more than their fair share, but they’re being overtaxed to give private jets a free ride.”

Passengers pay as many as six taxes and fees on a single airline ticket — often exceeding 25 percent of the total airfare and adding up to more than $104 billion since 1997.

Meanwhile, travelers deal with more hassles than ever. In 2006, more passengers were bumped, their flights delayed or their bags lost than in 2005, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating report released last month.

“What are people getting for their money?” asked Kenneth Button, a professor of transportation at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy and a specialist on air-transit taxation. “Delays are increasing. How can consumers make a sensible assessment on how the money is being spent? You need an abacus to figure out all the costs.”

Congress will decide this year whether to curtail the huge public subsidy for small airports, while pilots’ associations, airport managers and other interested groups are fighting to keep it.

Cost vs. benefit

Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents 8,000 operators of private jets and other aircraft, said all Americans benefit from the proliferation of small airports throughout the country. They aid emergency preparedness and critical services such as medical evacuations and mail delivery, he noted.

Without help from the federal government in the form of passenger taxes, many would be unable to survive, Mr. Bolen said.

“Not all aircraft are the same, nor do they impose the same costs on the system,” he said. “If we were grounded tomorrow, the system would cost the same.”

Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America said the key question is whether passengers are paying for something and getting nothing in return.

“It costs me more to park my car at [Ronald Reagan Washington] National Airport than it costs to park a corporate jet,” he said.

The taxes and fees finance the Federal Aviation Administration and its air-traffic-control operations, as well as passenger and baggage screening, federal air marshals and police presence at the nation’s commercial hubs.

Small airports fly high

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