With Washington again talking about infrastructure, the focus has turned quickly to how to pay for new projects. And that means air travelers may need to watch their wallets, with some lawmakers pushing for huge increases in taxes that you pay to fly. But before Congress thinks about taking more from American families, it needs to get its priorities straight.
Today if you drive down any decaying American highway or cross many of our nation’s bridges on your summer travels this year, you will quickly be reminded that an infrastructure bill still hasn’t passed Congress. Fly through any American airport, however, and you will probably think it had. There’s a reason for that.
These are high times for American airports. They are flush with cash, and modernization projects are booming. Still, if some in Congress have their way, the rich airports will only get richer — at your expense.
Airports are taking advantage of the legitimate debate about what to do about crumbling roads and bridges to seek a big — and entirely unnecessary — airport tax increase. It’s a story of misplaced priorities that threatens the success of a much-needed infrastructure package. It’s a story of wants versus needs.
Most don’t realize it, but there is a federal trust fund for aviation — separate from the Highway Trust Fund — which can be used for airport construction projects. It’s funded directly by air travelers through several ticket taxes. In addition to the trust fund, passengers are already paying billions in Passenger Facility Charges, or PFCs, a tax that shows up on top of the price of a ticket. These ample resources, along with billions of dollars that airlines are investing and the revenue that airports collect from things like concessions, are used by airports to fund their infrastructure needs.
Some lawmakers, at the behest of airports, are now proposing to double, or worse yet, uncap the current tax that airports are allowed to charge passengers. Doing so would allow airports to significantly increase the current tax that passengers pay just for setting foot in an airport — on every leg of every flight. Uncapping the PFC would essentially give airports a blank check to tax passengers as much as they see fit – sending the total price you pay to fly soaring for no good reason.
Unlike the Highway Trust Fund, which regularly needs transfers from the general treasury to stay solvent, the airport trust fund is running an enormous surplus. It currently holds an uncommitted balance of $7 billion. Unlike the long backlog of road and bridge projects communities are unable to fund, airports cannot cite a single project that isn’t being completed for lack resources.
That’s in part because PFC revenues have more than doubled since 2000, growing at twice the rate of inflation. In April, the government announced that in 2018 revenue from the PFC hit an all-time high. All together customers paid a total of $6.9 billion in airport taxes last year. Airports’ overall revenues reached an all-time high of $30 billion.
As a result, airport construction is taking off all across the country.
A renovation is underway in Kansas City. Chicago just broke ground on a major project to remake the international terminal at O’Hare. At LaGuardia in New York, a new concourse recently opened complete with fig trees and porcelain tile. In Seattle a terminal upgrade just added concierge service and floor-to-ceiling fireplaces. In Salt Lake City they’re rebuilding nearly the entire airport. Akron, Pittsburgh, Orlando, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tampa, Bozeman, Charlotte, Denver and many others all have major new projects underway.
Of course, travelers and airlines benefit from better airports. That’s why carriers spend heavily each year to help upgrade terminal and refurbish runways. More than $165 billion has and is being poured into our largest airports, and investment is robust at small and medium airports and cargo facilities as well.
Passengers and airlines are more than doing their part to build 21st century facilities across the country. The coffers are so full that airports actually diverted $5.4 billion – money already collected from passengers — to other purposes. Contrast these shiny new concourses with the dangerously neglected highways in America, and you wonder why lawmakers are even contemplating an airport tax increase that does nothing but dump more of your tax dollars into a pot that is already overflowing.
Getting big things done requires separating the needs from the wants, distinguishing the real priorities from wish lists of some unelected airport executives who are solely focused on their local desires — not the larger picture of the needs of the country. Lawmakers should focus on real infrastructure needs, such as roads, bridges and rail.
Let’s focus on America’s underfunded infrastructure priorities instead of ramming through a tax hike that airports don’t need and American travelers don’t want.
Rebecca Spicer is senior vice president of communications at Airlines for America.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.