If the nation's airports get their way, the price of flying will increase further this fall as they push for higher boarding fees used to fund airport improvements, ranging from new runways to expanded terminals.
Airports and the Federal Aviation Administration are asking Congress to increase the "Passenger Facility Charge," a fee that's automatically added to the price of each air passenger ticket. It's the first time the agency has asked for an increase since 2001, when the original 1992 fee of $3 per ticket increased to a maximum of $4.50.
The FAA now is asking Congress to increase the fee by another $1.50 to a maximum of $6. But the country's major airports would like the increase doubled - for a $7.50 fee - to keep up with construction cost inflation.
The inflation that worries passengers and the airline industry is the one that affects the cost of air travel, especially as other factors, such as soaring fuel costs, keep pushing up the cost of flying.
"Tickets already are expensive. ... I don't think they should be increasing the price," said Carlisha Colbert, a 24-year-old pharmacy major from Howard University who was visiting her family in Atlanta.
The Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, has long opposed a fee increase, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Machalek.
Congress has to revisit the fee because the current authorization for it expires Sept. 30.
"Part of the case we need to make to passengers is if we don't do this then the air transportation system in this country will be less efficient and we will not be able to handle the increased demand," said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, which represents U.S. airports. His group estimates 300 million new passengers - for an estimated total of a billion passengers - will take to the skies by 2015.
Passengers are charged the fee, known as a "PFC," each time they leave an airport, sometimes including a second fee when a passenger has a connecting flight through another airport. The fees also are levied by airports on the return leg of a passenger's trip.
Twenty-four of the nation's largest airports charge the maximum rate of $4.50 per ticket; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest, was the first to charge the maximum.
"There's an awful lot of net good that come out of these projects. It is a rock-solid program," said Catherine Lang, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for airports.
Ben DeCosta, the Atlanta airport's general manager, said the fees have been used for projects that included building a fifth runway, which opened in May. He said his airport received $155 million from the fees last year, and the fees covered more than half of the cost of the new runway, which airport officials said was needed to reduce travel delays.
"We're very happy to see the FAA recognizes the need for increased funding," DeCosta said. "We as airport directors would not be asking for an approval of a PFC more than what we need."
The FAA says an increase of $1.50 per ticket is sufficient because it will give airports an extra $1.2 billion annually for capital investments. Since their start in the early 1990s, the fees have provided more than $50 billion in airport capital improvements, according to Airports Council International.
Despite the debate over how much the fee should be, Lang said the PFC program is one of the best ways for airports to raise money for improvements that benefit passengers. Airports also use federal grants and airline landing fees to help pay for improvements.
Keenis Davis, 45, of Houston, who was passing through Atlanta on his way to London for a business trip, said the proposed fee increase "won't change anything."
"You still gotta travel. It's just another tax," he said.
On the Net:
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
Airports Council International-North America: http://www.aci-na.org
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