TSA’s new tax on air travelers doesn’t fly

Air travel just got more expensive. Beginning this week, the basic tax consumers pay to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rose for all air travelers. The agency has announced that they will ignore the intent of Congress and will increase taxes by as much as 124 percent, depending on the passenger’s itinerary.

Since its creation, the September 11th Security Fee that passengers have paid was assessed on a per-enplanement basis and capped at a maximum of $5 for a one-way trip (maximum 2 enplanements) or $10 for a round-trip (maximum 4 enplanements) itinerary. Last year, as part of the bipartisan budget deal to reduce the deficit, Congress simplified the fee structure by creating a flat $5.60 fee per one-way trip regardless of the number of enplanements. Congress made this change against the backdrop of the existing round trip cap and expected it to remain in place.

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Seizing the opportunity for a revenue windfall, TSA didn’t waste any time figuring out how to raise as much money as possible from air travelers. The Department of Homeland Security omitted the existing cap when it published the rules on the new fares. Without a cap, passengers may incur a dramatic increase over what they paid in the past. One of TSA’s own examples showed a multi-stop itinerary with TSA taxes totaling a shocking $33.60.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the authors of the bipartisan budget agreement – Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) – and many others in Congress have informed the Obama administration that they did not intend to remove the caps. The TSA has rejected this advice, however, and consumers will literally pay the price as a result.

Unfortunately, air travelers are all too familiar with excessive taxation and an unsympathetic government. Commercial aviation and its customers pay up to 17 different aviation taxes and fees, totaling more than $19 billion in FY 2013. Nearly $63, or 21 percent, of a typical $300 round-trip ticket is actually federal taxes and fees.

Yet, the current tax burden imposed on air travelers is largely hidden from their view. Current federal rules require airlines to bury government-imposed taxes and fees in the advertised price of a ticket. This enhances the ease with which the federal government can do what the TSA has just done and somewhat cleverly – raise quick money without fare transparency. 

While Congress and the Administration created this mess, they also have the means to fix it. Reinstituting the cap on TSA fees will help rein in a federal agency that is defying Congressional intent and protect passengers, particularly those from small or rural communities, who often fly multiple segments for one-way trips, from an unjustified and unauthorized fee increase.

Congress also should make sure that consumers know how much of the price of their ticket price actually is made up of federal taxes in disguise. Many consumers will now purchase tickets, unaware of the new TSA fee or the other costs that the federal government tacks on air travel.

The Transparent Airfares Act (H.R. 4156) will help consumers know how much of their ticket price is due to federal taxes. It will also help protect consumers from a government that looks to tax air travelers every time it needs revenue. The legislation’s broad, bi-partisan support illustrates that the legislation is warranted, worthwhile and overdue.

The TSA’s new tax scheme is just latest in a series of efforts by the federal government to raise revenue on the backs of air travelers. Congress has the opportunity, not to mention the obligation, to reverse the tide. An already overtaxed public hopes they rise to the occasion and say, for all of us, enough is enough.

Calio is president and CEO of the trade association Airlines for America.