Groups revive debate over passenger fees for airport upgrades

 Groups revive debate over passenger fees for airport upgrades

Conservatives and libertarians are calling on Congress to lift the cap on the amount of money that airports can charge passengers to help pay for facility improvements.

Airport groups have long pressed Washington to nearly double or fully remove the $4.50 limit on the fee that is added to every plane ticket, known as the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC).

The renewed push comes as President Trump has promised to repair the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and airports with a massive infrastructure package later this year. Lawmakers will also soon be putting together a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose legal authority expires in September.

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But funding offsets for infrastructure upgrades have long remained elusive. The PFC increase has been billed as one pro-market solution that avoids adding to the deficit or increasing the burden on tax-payers, while also making airports more self-sufficient.

“These are fair and efficient ways to go about financing infrastructure,” Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said during a Capitol Hill panel discussion on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, you do have a number of commercial interests that oppose these various fees and support the taxpayer subsidized status quo.”

Despite the seemingly conservative appeal, however, Congress opted not to address the PFC cap in last year’s long-term proposal to reauthorize the FAA.

The proposal to increase the fees paid by passengers for airport projects has faced strong pushback from the airline industry, which argues that passengers are already charged enough fees by the government when they purchase tickets and have labeled the PFC increase an “airport tax.”

Scribner pointed out that the PFC is a user fee, which can only be used for a very narrow set of airport projects.

“User fees can only be imposed on service beneficiaries,” he said. “The primary beneficiaries of airports are the passengers who use them.”

Airport groups have argued that the passenger fee is long overdue for an increase, since it has not been raised in over 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.

“The question is, what is the most fair and equitable way to have an unmet need met?” said Chris Barron, director of communications for Van Scoyoc Associates. “We all agree that the person which takes advantage of it ought to be the person who pays for it.”

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will tackle the issue in an FAA bill this year and whether there will be new momentum under the Trump administration.

But House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has vowed to re-up a proposal to separate air traffic control from the FAA, which Scribner called a “step in the same direction” as lifting the PFC cap.

While the panel’s ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has vehemently opposed the spin-off plan, he has signaled strong support for increasing or removing the federal limit on the PFC.

“There really is an opportunity for some political odd couples to work together here,” Barron said. “The fact we have a way to do it that doesn’t end up costing an extra penny to federal tax-payers, I feel like this ought to be one of those times where we can work together.”