- - Monday, June 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

My dad is 86. He swears he’s never flying again. He had a bad experience flying up for an Alaskan cruise a couple of years ago, and he’s done.

But what he will continue to do is pay for flying. He will pay to repair and update airports. He will pay for security. He will pay taxes that go into big “general” government funds, some of which will be disbursed to airports for these renovations and repairs.

That makes keeping our airports up to date and functional into a political football. They get the money they need when the political system decides so.

Now, most of the funds that go for airport upkeep do not come from my dad or other members of the non-flying public. They come from fees tacked on when you buy an airline ticket, and they go into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which receives some general fund dollars but mainly is funded through fees on tickets.

There is the domestic passenger ticket tax of 7.5 percent of the purchase price of the ticket. It goes to the trust fund’s Airport Improvement Project.

So does the domestic flight segment tax — $4 for every takeoff and landing. If I fly down to see Dad, that’s $4 to Houston, then $4 more to Shreveport. And back again.

Also, there’s the International Arrival and Departure Tax, which cost my dad $8.90 when he flew to Alaska and costs $17.70 for flights outside the United States. And the excise tax on kerosene and the somewhat related but truly noxious Sept. 11 Security Fee of $5.60 per one-way trip, which goes to pay the gropers at the Transportation Security Administration.

All the money from all those fees goes into a fund that is administered with typical Washington efficiency.

It ends up doling out far more for smaller airports in the districts of influential members of Congress than for the 35 or so hubs that really need the work. More than 72 percent of all passengers in the United States board at the 30 largest hubs. But a sixth of all the money from all those fees plus the percentage kicked in by guys like my dad goes to general aviation airports — those so small they don’t serve any commercial carriers on a regular basis.

But there is another fee at the bottom of a plane ticket that could provide a way out. It’s called the Passenger Facility Charge. It is not a tax. As the Tax Foundation points in a recent report, it is neither remitted to nor spent by the federal government. It goes directly to airports to be spent on specific airport projects.

The fee was set at $4.50 per ticket in 2000. As we all know, $4.50 does not go as far as it did back then.

To me, we have this backward. Instead of laundering funds through Washington via those other fees, why not remove, or at least increase, the cap for the Passenger Facility Charge? If the idea is to raise money from the flying public to keep the airports they use up to date, then let the airports collect and spend that money.

It will be more efficient because it doesn’t go through the washing machine on the Potomac. It will be more responsive because airports can raise or lower the fees as needs dictate. And it will be cheaper overall for passengers if these other fees are reduced or disappear altogether.

It could help flyers in other ways as well. Passenger Facility Charges go to preserve or enhance safety, security and the capacity of the system, to reduce noise and to provide for expansion and thus more competition among airlines.

Today, the big three carriers — Delta, United and American — control more than 80 percent of the airways, which enables them to not only closely track each other on fares but raise other fees, such as bag fees and meal costs and so forth, almost in concert.

Imagine if local airports could make their own decisions, with their own money, to expand and allow more carriers. Some would raise fees and grow. Others would stick with what they have. But most importantly, those decisions would be made locally — in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration and others — and the local people responsible for those decisions could be accountable.

As it is, nobody knows why LaGuardia Airport is, in the words of Donald Trump, a “third-world dump,” but tiny airports that serve the Piper Cub crowd claim a sixth of the money. Nobody, in fact, is even all that sure where all the money goes.

What we are sure of is the money is adding up, but airports are falling farther and farther behind in their ability to serve the American public. It’s time to take my dad off the hook and to give truly local control of airport upkeep money a chance to work.

Brian McNicoll is a conservative columnist and freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. He is a former senior writer for the Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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