US Airways pays about $150 to land its new nonstop flight from Las Vegas at Palm Beach International Airport.

But when Donald Trump flies into town in his private jet, he pays nothing. About two-thirds of the other airplanes that use the airport don't pay a penny to land either.

Unlike commercial airliners, private jets and other general aviation aircraft aren't charged to land on the airport's runways.

Now some airport watchdogs say it's time for them to pay up.

They argue that private planes don't pay their fair share to use the airport. Commercial airliners and the roughly 7 million passengers who fly in and out of Palm Beach International each year are being forced to subsidize the private industry, they say.

If private planes were charged to land, some would divert to Palm Beach County's smaller airports near Lantana and Palm Beach Gardens. That could reduce traffic at Palm Beach International, eliminating the need for a second runway for airliners, they argue. The other airports do not charge landing fees. PBIA is owned and operated by the county.

"If people get incensed about people cheating on food stamps, why wouldn't they get incensed about people cheating on this?" said Nancy Pullum, president of the El Cid neighborhood association. The historic neighborhood east of Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach lies under the airport's flight path. "This is really welfare for the private sector."

About 65 percent of planes that fly in and out of PBIA are private. Yet general aviation generates only about 8.5 percent of the airport's revenues, said Michael Simmons, its finance director.

Much of that money comes from rental fees to store airplanes and a 5 cents-a-gallon charge called a fuel flowage fee.

Commercial airliners don't pay the fuel fee. But in order to land at the airport, they are required to pay a landing fee based on the aircraft's weight. The fee is $1.63 per 1,000 pounds.

In all, the airport collects about $4 million in landing fees each year. It takes in about $900,000 a year from the fuel flowage fee.

The rest of the airport's revenues, expected to total about $67 million this year, come from rental agreements and concession contracts.

Commercial air carriers generate about one-third of those revenues. In addition to the landing fee, they pay about $20 million a year to rent space in the terminal, Simmons said.

If a landing fee for private planes were approved, it would not generate any additional revenue, Simmons said.

Such a fee would force private planes to pay their fair share to use the airfield, not make money for the airport, Simmons said. Because private planes make up about 65 percent of the traffic, some say they should be paying about 65 percent of the cost to maintain and operate the runways and taxiways.

If private planes are forced to pay, landing fees for commercial airlines would be reduced.

Residents opposed to the county's plan to expand the airport's general aviation runway to accommodate commercial jets say the landing fee could be set high enough so that it sways those who own private airplanes to use other airports, especially during weekends and holidays.

The Federal Aviation Administration "can't force general aviation somewhere else," said Rick Rose, president of the association for the Grandview Heights neighborhood just north of Belvedere Road. "But there is no reason why the county can't."

Airport officials began considering landing fees last year and are researching the concept.

Many other airports across the country, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, charge general aviation landing fees.

However, members of the county's aviation and airports advisory board, which includes several licensed pilots, have opposed the fee. In April, the board voted 5-4 against moving forward with the issue.

"You've got fees every time you turn around if you are an aircraft owner," board member Harold Gilmore said at the April meeting. "The airline industry is trying the best they can to divert everything to general aviation."

Despite the decision, Airports Director Bruce Pelly said county commissioners wanted him to investigate the charge. Not all private planes pay the fuel fee because they don't always fill up at the airport, Pelly said.

Pelly agrees private planes aren't paying enough to use the runways, but he says the landing fee would not be enough to prevent the need for a second commercial runway.

Many people who fly on private jets live in Palm Beach and want to use the airport closest to their home. And most private pilots willing to use the north county airport already do so, having relocated from PBIA in the mid-1990s when the airport opened, airport officials said.

"We don't believe that a landing fee is going to reduce the activity on the airfield to the point where a runway is not going to be necessary," Pelly said. "It's not going to have a dramatic effect on the utilization of the airfield."

The landing fee would also do little to reduce ticket prices for commercial flights, Pelly said.

"If they charge $400 to go to Tallahassee and $250 to go to New York, what's the rationale for that?" he said. "It certainly doesn't come back to what it costs to operate out of the airport."

"Ticket price is based more on competition and what the market will bear," he added.

But Arthur Bernstein, a member of the airport advisory group who has pushed for the fees, said the airport's passengers will ultimately subsidize a second commercial runway that he said is needed mostly to accommodate private jets.

A $3 fee called a passenger facility charge is tacked on to the cost of every ticket to help pay for airport improvements. The fee is expected to increase to $4.50 next year. Part of that money will be used to pay for the runway.

"The strain isn't coming from the 35 percent commercial, it's coming from the 65 percent general aviation," Bernstein said. "We are a major GA airport with a good commercial side. But all of us who are running through there and buying pizza and Starbucks are really paying the freight to give GA a free ride."

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national advocacy group for general aviation, has not taken a position on the landing fee, but officials are closely monitoring the issue.

"What we most definitely do not want to see happen are fees charged that are discriminatory, that are designed to drive GA out of an airport," association spokesman Chris Dancy said. "The bottom line is that an airport, especially a federally funded airport, can't discriminate against users."

Using a landing fee to persuade general aviation pilots to fly somewhere else in hopes of limiting flights at PBIA would be discriminatory, Dancy said.

"If the concern by the community is over the runway, then an argument about landing fees is smoke and mirrors," he said. "They are attacking general aviation pilots instead of attacking the runway."

As part of a three-year study evaluating the environmental effects of the second commercial runway, federal aviation officials considered redirecting smaller airplanes to other county airports. The concept was eliminated from the study because officials said it wouldn't work.

Bernstein argues that the county could opt to institute the landing fee before the FAA's study is finalized to see whether it helps reduce congestion.

"The runway is not going to be built tomorrow," he said. "If you have a landing fee, in the worst case nobody moves. But now you have at least made the cost structure more fair."

Last year, 60,300 commercial flights and 91,300 private flights took place at PBIA. There were 40,100 takeoffs or landings using air taxis, which the FAA classifies as for-hire aircraft with a maximum seating capacity of 60, according to federal aviation records. Airport officials classify some of the air taxi flights as general aviation.

By 2025, FAA officials predict, about 124,000 general aviation flights will occur at the airport -- 30 percent more than the number expected this year. The number of commercial flights is expected to climb by nearly 50 percent, from 61,925 this year to 92,678 in 2025.

Owen Gassaway Sr., president of Florida Airmotive, the fixed-based operator -- a company that provides services such as food and gas for general aviation -- at Lantana Airport, would see his company's profits soar if landing fees were imposed at PBIA because more planes would fly into his airport. But Gassaway, a longtime member of the county's general aviation community, is opposed to the fees. The industry already pays its fair share, he said.

The airport does not provide any direct services to general aviation pilots, except for field lighting and grass cutting around the tarmac. The fixed-based operators, who pay rent at the airport, do the rest, Gassaway said.

"When you go out on the street and you put yourself on the corner with your hat out, you do that because you are short of money," Gassaway said. "To be sitting as a fat cow and say you know there is money over there we can get, I think that's not our system."

At PBIA, the cost of maintaining and running the airfield makes up about 10 percent of overall operating costs, airport officials said.

"What we are talking about is how we divide 10 percent of our overall cost between the commercial carriers and GA," said Pelly, the county airports director. "We just need to figure out the best way to accomplish it."

Staff researchers Melanie Mena, Sammy Alzofon and Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.


Air traffic to soar

The number of flights by smaller general aviation planes at Palm Beach International Airport dropped by 20 percent from 1996 to 2006. Meanwhile, the number of commercial airline and air taxi flights has increased. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts general aviation numbers will bounce back 30 percent by 2025 while commercial flights will increase by nearly 50 percent.

Number of flights,in thousands, actual and projected, 1996 - 2025 for general aviation, commercial airliners and air taxi.

Note: Air taxis are for-hire aircraft with a maximum seating capacity of 60 seats or a maximum payload capacity of 18,000 pounds. They carry passengers or cargo.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration

A month of flights at PBIA

About 4,600 general aviation flights took place at the airport in September - roughly 660 more than the number of commercial flights. In all, there were only eight days (see dates in bold) on which the number of commercial flights outnumbered general aviation flights.

Number of flights at PBIA September 2007, by day, for general aviation, commercial airliners and air taxi.

Note: Air taxis are for-hire aircraft with a maximum seating capacity of 60 seats or less or a maximum payload capacity of 18,000 pounds or less. They carry passengers or cargo.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration