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Congress, don’t treat flyers like airport ATMs

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The flying public this week will receive a disturbing message from Washington: You’re about to become an ATM for the nation’s airports.

In anticipation of the FAA reauthorization markup, an amendment is being proposed to remove the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC), a $4.50 tax every flyer pays on every flight. Already, flyers are taxed at nearly 21 percent on a typical domestic round-trip ticket. If this new amendment is adopted and the FAA reauthorization becomes law, airports would be free to raise the PFC as high as they wanted, until flyers’ pockets are turned inside out. 

{mosads}To propose such a drastic move would seem to indicate a funding crisis — that airports can’t afford to upgrade infrastructure and continue improving the flying experience. But the opposite is actually true: Airports are flush with cash and have the ability to complete whatever infrastructure projects they wish. This tax is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

The nation’s airports argued in a May 31 letter to the White House — signed by the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International-North America — that the PFC cap is “outdated” and “unnecessary.” But one needs a sound fiscal argument to call for the doubling, or more, of a tax on flyers. Instead, there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary:

  • Airports have been unable to point to a single project that has not proceeded because of a lack of funding.
  • Airports collected $3.2 billion through the PFC in 2016, breaking the record set in 2015. This year is on track to be another record-breaker.
  • Passengers pay another tax to fund the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF), which supports airport improvement projects across the country. The balance of that fund is nearly $7 billion, which is the highest level since 2001. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund will eclipse $7 billion by the end of the 2017 Fiscal Year.
  • In 2015, airline rents and fees hit a record $10.7 billion. Non-airline rents and fees, such as parking, retail, food and beverage, reached a record $9.1 billion.
  • Airports have almost $12.7 billion in unrestricted cash and investments. They also have access to the bond market and historically low interest rates, given airports’ investment-grade ratings.

America’s airlines would never argue against infrastructure improvements or the much-needed efforts to upgrade this nation’s airports to the benefit of our flyers. In fact, our industry has worked hand-in-hand with airports, and more than $100 billion of capital projects have been completed, are underway or have been approved at the nation’s 30 largest airports since 2008, from Washington Dulles to Chicago O’Hare to LAX. Development is also robust at some of the nation’s smaller airports, including Des Moines, Nashville and Reno-Tahoe. These projects dovetail with the investments airlines are making in the customer experience — at airports, in cabins and in mobile technology — at a rate of more than $1.4 billion per month.

Finally, a tax of this magnitude would be bad for the economy and a drag on an aviation industry that supports 5 percent of GDP and more than 10 million jobs. Every $1 increase in the PFC would cost airline passengers an additional $800 million annually, a restrained estimate considering the push for no limit. There’s good reason that Americans for Tax Reform said removing the cap would put “an unnecessary and unfair burden” on airline passengers.

At a time when federal, state and local governments are promoting trade and tourism to bolster our economic recovery, this tax would counteract those efforts. Though the airports argue that this tax will help local economies, the opposite is true. Raising the $4.50 PFC cap would discourage air travel and air service growth to local communities, especially those rural and small price-sensitive localities that members of Congress know will suffer disproportionately with this tax increase. 

America’s airlines support the president’s push to elevate this nation’s infrastructure and to ensure that the nation’s aviation industry continues to be a global leader. We’re fully committed to doing our part. But restraining economic growth while taxing Americans is not the right path.

America’s flyers are already taxed enough. Besides, even ATMs have limits.

Calio is president and CEO of Airlines for America, the trade association for the nation’s principle airlines.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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