Ground Clutter

User fees, tax-free bonds, new parking facilities, ticket taxes, and acronym groups out the yingyang. It all boils down to the fact that everybody is hunting money. Airports need to cut costs and increase income. The airlines and the guvmint are no longer reliable sources of steady income. In fact, both are trying to divert their own costs to the airport.

User fees? Like the political filibuster, it's an old subject - our country had toll roads before we had a real country - but it's also as current as tomorrow. User fees are fair in principle, but there is no fair way to collect money for waste and inefficiency.

If they want us to pay for the system, we should have some input about how the money is spent. As written in this column years ago, I can't forget that for years the guvmint collected taxes for the Aviation Trust Fund, then refused to spend it. Now, as I understand it, they spend it to fund FAA, rather than for improvements to the system, the purpose for which it was collected. How can you rely on a group like that?

And how can we agree on a "fair" user fee for a Cherokee landing on a huge, thick runway that a 747 needs but the Cherokee doesn't? We can't even agree on peak period pricing at horribly over-crowded airports.

(Some 30 years ago, Stage III airport areas were a new thing, and the guvmint had a big push urging VFR traffic to "voluntarily" call approach control as we approached to land. I (then flying a Cessna-172) cooperated fully until someone told me the airports counted my call as IFR handling, thus qualifying them for more funds and staff. Thereafter, I called tower, not approach. Tower came back advising me to call approach. "Naw," I answered, "I can't afford to call approach." "It doesn't cost anything," they responded. I then explained, right over the airwaves, exactly why I disagreed.)

Airport bonds sell best when the income is tax-free to the investor, but it can be argued that said tax break just amounts to more guvmint funding. Still, bonds do bring outside money to the table, and we desperately need more of that.

Airports need new sources of money. Further gouging of paying passengers - as in even higher taxes/fees on rental cars, etc. - and further pleas for more guvmint money ain't gonna get the job done. The new parking system at MSP (as reported by Jodi Richards, June 2005 Airport Business) is a perfect example. MSP figured out a way to cut costs, raise income, and improve customer service, all without going to the guvmint for more money. If that ain't genius at work, what is?

Looking at the airport "enterprise wide," as the MSP people called it, where else and how else can the airport find more profit, as opposed to more handouts? The airport is one of the few places where I, as a customer, am definitely going to spend hours of "free" time in the next month. Hell, sell me something while I'm there.