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Obama budget could boost fees on air travelers

Airline travelers would pay more to help finance airport projects under President Barack Obama's budget plan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Airline travelers would pay more to help finance airport projects under President Barack Obama's budget plan.

The president's budget released Monday would raise the "passenger facility charge" to a maximum of $7 from $4.50 per flight to offset $1.1 billion in cuts to airport grants. Airports use the passenger-charge money for FAA-approved safety and expansion projects.

Just because it's in the president's budget doesn't mean the increased facility charge will fly. Some Republicans with a hand in writing aviation laws have different ideas. Airlines are also fighting the proposal, saying it amounts to a $2 billion tax increase on the flying public. Airline executives argue the increase could discourage more people from flying.

Todd Hauptli, a lobbyist for the American Association of Airport Executives, said the grant cuts would hurt critically needed safety, security and capacity projects at airports around the country.

Airport advocates, such as consultant Mike Boyd, were outraged that Obama would cut airport spending while proposing $53 billion for high-speed rail. "Rail won't work — it's a 19th-century solution," he said. "Meanwhile, airports will have 30 percent less to do the things we need to do."

The provisions were included in Obama's $129 billion budget for the Transportation Department. An agency spokesman said Obama would protect grant money for smaller airports that don't have other revenue sources while letting bigger ones raise money for capital projects with the higher passenger charges.

Last year the House approved a bill that would have let airports raise the charge up to $7, but the Senate version of the bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration didn't include a raise. The bill died anyway.

The House is now under Republican control. Last week Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and new aviation subcommittee chairman Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., notably left the $4.50 limit on passenger charges unchanged in their FAA overhaul bill.

The passenger charge is levied on each flight segment, which is one takeoff and one landing. For example, a passenger flying from Dallas to Detroit with a stop in Chicago would pay the charge twice, once for each leg of the trip.

Airlines say raising the passenger fee would slow the recovery in airline travel, which helped the airlines earn about $2.3 billion in profit last year after losing billions in 2008 and 2009.

Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson wrote in the airline's in-flight magazine, Sky, that raising the fee to $7 would mean that a family of four would pay $112 in passenger charges on the average trip. He assumes they make one stop on their outbound trip and another going home, for a total of four legs.

The passenger charge is just one item in the president's $3.73 trillion budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Obama's plan would reduce federal deficits by $1.1 trillion over a decade but wouldn't cut as deeply as his own deficit commission recommended.