U.S. airlines owe the government $196 million in unpaid airport security fees, twice as much as in 2006, and federal officials plan to start collecting later this year.
Liability for fees, created after the Sept. 11 attacks to help pay for screening passengers and bags, could grow to $294 million by the end of 2007, said Dave Nicholson, chief financial officer of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration.
The security agency is seeking to decrease its reliance on general tax revenue. In addition to the back fees, it wants a 42 percent increase in future airline payments, to $448 million a year.
Houston-based Continental Airlines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines and 25 other carriers are contesting the fees, which they say are unfair and excessive.
"American Airlines believes it has presented a compelling case to the TSA that this money is not owed," AMR spokesman Tim Wagner said in an e-mail.
Collections will begin after the agency completes hearing carrier appeals by October, Nicholson said this week.
Back fees that aren't paid in 2007 and 2008 will be collected in later years, Nicholson said.
"We have not paid any of those additional fees," Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said. "We do have to carry on our books the potential for that payment," which Southwest formally disputed last year.
United spokeswoman Jean Medina said, "We do believe that the claims are unjustified and trust that when given a fair review, our reporting process will be upheld."
The agency last year said Southwest owed the most, $24 million, followed by American, $18.8 million, and Delta Air Lines, $14.9 million. Continental was asked to pay almost $7 million.
Nicholson declined to release an updated list of companies and the amounts owed.
The fees are supposed to be based on the airlines' screening costs in 2000, before the government took over responsibility for security. Airlines also pay a separate security fee of about $2 billion assessed on passenger tickets. That fee isn't part of this dispute.
The fee that passengers pay would be increased to $5 per flight from $2.50 for nonstop trips.
Continental is being asked to pay almost $7 million more for 2005, which is considerably less than many other airlines. Dallas-based Southwest, for example, has been billed $24 million.
Security bills come due
Other airlines may also challenge the Transportation Security Administration as it seeks to collect $103.7 million in 2005 fees and raises the levies by more than a third this year.