updated 4/1/2008 7:01:06 PM ET 2008-04-01T23:01:06

The airline industry may sue the Transportation Department to stop it from allowing the nation’s busiest airports to charge higher landing fees during peak travel times.

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The Air Transport Association said the department doesn’t have the authority to implement the congestion pricing models.

“These actions are legally indefensible,” ATA President James May wrote in a letter Monday to DOT Secretary Mary Peters.

A DOT spokesman on Tuesday refuted those claims and said the agency has power to allow airports to charge carriers higher landing fees during peak periods. The policy is meant to push airlines to spread flights more evenly through the day and get congested airports to include in landing fees the cost of expansion projects.

The ATA registered its latest complaint three days before the comment period closes for the airport congestion pricing model. The airport fee proposal was scheduled to start last month, but the airlines opposed the plan and were granted a 30-day extension to comment, which ends Thursday.

When asked specifically if the trade group would file a lawsuit to stop the government from implementing the programs, ATA spokesman David Castelveter on Tuesday said: “We will pursue all of our options.”

The ATA, which represents the nation’s largest airlines, also opposes the flight caps being imposed this summer at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York because as capacity at those locations grow, the government intends to auction the slots. Similar flight caps, which are intended to alleviate record-high delays, already exist at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

The ATA contends the proposals will increase costs for the industry and passengers, and prefers flight-path changes and improvements aimed at increasing flight capacity at airports.

Peters in January said the policy will make it easier for airports to reduce delays by charging fees based on traffic volume, instead of aircraft weight alone. The proposal also would allow operators of multiple airports, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to distribute landing-fee revenue among facilities.

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