"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.
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