Increase landing fee at airport, audit says

The world's busiest airport needs to increase the decades-old fee it charges airlines to land planes on its five runways, a city of Atlanta audit has determined.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has the lowest basic landing fee --- the charge assessed airplanes on each 1,000 pounds of landed weight --- of any major airport in the nation, said City Auditor Leslie Ward.

That's good news for the airlines but could be shortchanging the airport, which in recent years has collected about $26 million a year, or about 10 percent of its annual operating revenue, from the fees, Ward said.

Ward's audit recommends the airport raise the basic fee --- currently 16 cents per 1,000 pounds --- so that it covers actual operational and maintenance costs at the airport. The audit does not recommend the amount of a new landing fee, but notes the current basic charge was first established four decades ago.

"It contained no provision for an inflator that would allow it to be adjusted upward," Ward said in a telephone interview. The airport, however, does add additional fees to the basic charge to help pay for various airfield improvements. Those boost the rate to 46.5 cents, still very low as compared, for example, to $2.63 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and $3.22 at Denver International Airport.

The current basic landing fee expires in three years, and airport and airline officials expect it to be increased when they enter negotiations.

"I've been saying that for years," Ben DeCosta, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, said of the call for higher landing fees.

"We'll negotiate them [new fees] between now and 2010."

Delta Air Lines, which uses Hartsfield-Jackson as its hub and accounts for more than 70 percent of its flights, has already begun to prepare for the negotiations that will lead to new fees.

"Delta does expect to enter discussions soon to ensure that future landing fees reflect the true cost of operations and are fair to customers and allow us to continue growing in Atlanta at competitive costs," Delta spokesman Kent Landers said.

Ward's audit not only covers the amount of the landing fees, but the methods by which they are collected.

Collections are now based on a kind of "honor system," which auditors want changed.

The audit recommends the airport automate its landing fee invoice system and establish a penalty for the late payment of the fees.