Congress Blog

As monopolies, airlines just want to 'own it all'

Here we go again. The big airlines that brought you such popular "innovations" as bag fees, change fees, smaller airplane seats, and cattle-call boarding now want to do one better - stifle competition at your local airport.

Sadly, this is not a big surprise.

With just four airlines controlling more than 80 percent of the domestic market, they have been acting like monopolies for years. They have carved up route maps that limit competition and preserve high airfares in most markets.

The airlines have tacked on dozens of fees on top of their ticket prices, raking in billions and billions each year. Some airlines have taken advantage of natural disasters by price gouging passengers in impacted areas. And they have done little to invest in airport facilities, especially in small and mid-sized communities, where passengers often find themselves stuck due to carrier delays.

In fact, one study estimates that passenger fares are $4.4 billion higher annually due to the lack of available gate space at airport terminals. It's enough to make your top hat and monocle spin!

Clearly, what is good for the big airlines' bottom line is not good for regular air travelers.

America's airports think there is a better way to improve the passenger experience for their travelers, and we are focused on two important and related goals - improving our aviation infrastructure and increasing air service options. Air passengers throughout the country benefit when airports can build the new terminals, gates, and runways they need to attract new, and often discounted, air service.

Recognizing that new investments in airports can be valuable tools in helping local communities keep and attract new air carriers, the Senate Appropriations Committee has put forward a real infrastructure bill that would dramatically improve airports across the country by modernizing the local airport user fee and increasing funding for federal airport grants. We applaud Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for their leadership on these issues.

Efforts to improve airport infrastructure come at a crucial time - with passenger enplanements at a record high and federal infrastructure investments stagnant. According to our most recent infrastructure needs survey, airports need $100 billion in infrastructure improvement projects over the next five years, but half of those lack an identified funding source.

All airports would benefit from having the ability to generate more local revenue for runways, taxiways, terminals, gates, and other projects that would improve safety and security, increase capacity, provide much needed competition, and enhance the overall passenger experience.

It is beyond laughable that the big airlines - who beg and plead for local airport user fees to be used on airport projects that benefit them - come to Washington and call it a tax on their passengers. This simply is not true.

Let's set the record straight. An airport's local user fee can only be used for a very narrow set of airport improvement projects that directly benefit the passengers who use that airport. These funds are collected locally and remain at the airport - never coming to Washington or hitting the federal treasury - and they allow an airport to be more financially self-sufficient. That is why many staunchly conservative groups have come out in support of modernizing the airport user fee. This enhances local communities across the country.

Don't be fooled by what the airlines' opposition is really about: the traveling public gets more choices and lower airfares when airports can build facilities that provide more airline competition and more service alternatives. Local airports should have freedom and flexibility to make their own financial decisions without relying on the approval of their incumbent, oligopolistic air carriers.

The original intent of the PFC was to create and enhance airline competition. We should leave it that way.

Congress needs to take the next step now and give final approval to the important aviation infrastructure provisions in the Senate bill. Airports are eager to get to work meeting the infrastructure and air service needs of today and challenges of tomorrow - to the benefit of all air travelers.

Burke is president and CEO of Airports Council International - North America, the trade association for commercial service airports in the United States and Canada.

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