Are American airports really ‘third-world’ in quality?
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During his campaign for president, Donald Trump compared the quality of American airports to those of the third-world, and he called for a change. Allowing more local control of airport funding would modernize facilities, expand airline options, reduce delays, and make the president’s goal a reality.

As a member of Congress serving 12 years from Georgia, I flew from my district to Washington and back more than 40 times per year. This was a weekly reminder of how much our air travel system needs to be modernized. Outdated and congested facilities mean fewer airline options, longer lines, and more delays. We now have less competition than, and more than one-in-five flights are either delayed or canceled.

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As with any industry, when competition declines, so does customer service. People who fly are as unhappy as ever and find themselves hit with fees and charges for even basic air travel-related services. When the satirical Onion jokingly reported that American Airlines was phasing out complimentary cabin pressurization during flights, some did a double take. It was the perfect illustration of how the airline industry has perfected the art of nickel and diming passengers.

 

It was an instance where satire came with a heavy dose of truth. When jet fuel prices hit near-atmospheric levels in 2008, airlines began imposing surcharges on baggage. When oil was $150 a barrel, the fees were sold as a temporary measure to offset the additional and unexpected costs of aircraft fuel. Passengers could understand that need when the price of oil tripled.

But today, as a barrel of oil is back down to around $50, the baggage fees remain firmly in place — despite common sense saying that the prices should have come back down when oil prices dropped. And airlines have continued to double down on fees. Several airlines charge consumers for a pillow and a blanket. Don't want a middle seat? Some airlines charge more for that too. More legroom? That's more money as well. Want to be whisked through security? That’s an additional charge. 

Any way that airlines can squeeze a dollar out of you, they have found a way to do it. Spirit Airlines charges flyers for the privilege of carrying bags on the flight — even bringing your small pet on board the flight can cost nearly $200. Those nickel and dime fees quickly added up in airline profits. Reports suggest that United Airlines, for example, pocketed $700 million in baggage fees alone. A new study found that the industry raked in $38.1 billion in fees last year.

While imposing charges after fees after more charges on consumers, airlines are sending their lobbyists to Congress to oppose a $4 increase in local airport fees called the “Passenger Facility Charge,” or PFC. Airports collect a PFC from each departing passenger and are allowed to reinvest the funds in projects that strengthen security, expand airline options, and reduce delays. The airlines — which would prefer to limit the number of competitors at each airport — have labeled this as a “tax” and say their added charges are different because they’re imposed for “optional services,” as if most air travel consumers do not need these services. Carrying bags onto the plane hardly seems like an unneeded privilege.

Allowing the airports to continue to collect this revenue and invest it locally, instead of collecting it through a federal agency, will allow innovation and improvement that would improve customer service and competition in air travel. While President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE may have mildly overstated the problem when he called our airports “third-world,” no American airport ranks among the top 25 globally. Trump could lead the way in making America's airports world class much in the way President Eisenhower provided leadership in building the nation's Interstate Highway System.

Some would point to the federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which collects taxes from passengers, as a way that airports receive federal funding. But very little of this money helps improve the largest and most heavily used airports that need it most. The 60 largest airports that serve most air travel consumers get only 27 percent of AIP grants. At the same time, 30 percent of AIP funds go to noncommercial airports that serve less than one percent of commercial traffic. 

Eliminating the AIP taxes and allowing more funding via the PFC would keep funds local and empower airports to make key improvements and upgrades. This will reduce federal micromanagement and increase modernization and job creation at our airports. Members of Congress know the problems with air travel firsthand because we fly home so many times every year. Expanding competition in air travel by way of these reforms is an idea that should get strong bipartisan support.

 

Lynn Westmoreland served in the U.S. House as a Georgia Republican from 2005-17.


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