Lawmakers push to lift cap on passenger fees for airport upgrades

Lawmakers push to lift cap on passenger fees for airport upgrades

A bipartisan duo in Congress is pushing to remove the federal cap on the amount of money that airports can charge passengers to help pay for facility improvements.

Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced new legislation Wednesday that would lift the $4.50 limit on the fee that is added to every plane ticket, known as the passenger facility charge (PFC).

The measure would also trim $400 million from the $3.35 billion in federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants that are provided to eligible airport development projects each year. Some airports have previously offered to give up some AIP funding in exchange for uncapping the PFC, which they want to see raised to $8.50 per ticket.

Passenger fees haven’t been raised in more than 15 years. Meanwhile, airports are facing over $100 million in unmet infrastructure needs, while the number of airline passengers is expected to grow, adding a further strain on the system.

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Lawmakers said lifting the PFC cap would allow airports greater flexibility to improve capacity, add runways, modernize facilities, reduce noise and stimulate competition among airlines.

“We are not increasing the PFC,” Massie said during a Transportation panel hearing on Wednesday. “We are giving [airports] the freedom to do whatever [they] want.”

The hearing is part of a series of sessions intended to explore aviation issues ahead of a debate over reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose legal authority expires in September.

But the issue has been divisive among the aviation industry, with airlines arguing that passengers are already charged enough in fees by the government when they purchase tickets. They have labeled the PFC increase an "airport tax." Last year’s FAA proposal did not address the passenger fee.

DeFazio acknowledged the concerns of opponents, joking that he could “hear the screams” coming from the major airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A). 

The airline group fired back in a tweet, saying that, with "all due respect" to DeFazio, "those screams are from passengers who don't want to pay for a PFC tax hike."

DeFazio, who said he tried to work with A4A on the fee issue, knocked down claims that allowing airports to raise passenger fees would dampen travel demand. He pointed out that airline traffic has remained constant even as airlines have continued to charge for checked bags, legroom and other services.

“The president has said he wants to rebuild airports,” DeFazio said. “What is better than a user fee for the users of the system to pay?”

The U.S. Travel Association expressed support for DeFazio and Massie’s legislation to uncap the PFC on Thursday.

"This bill is proof that the conversation around fixing our aviation infrastructure has fundamentally changed, with bipartisan, broad-spectrum support coalescing behind the approach of sensible user fees and local control over projects,” said President and CEO Roger Dow.

“Consensus has been steadily building that the PFC is the perfect pay-for to achieve that goal. Adjusting the PFC cap will empower local airport authorities to invest in targeted infrastructure projects, improving security and the flying experience for flyers, and keeping us globally competitive.”

— This story was updated at 2:38 p.m.