Traveler Taxes Awarded to Small Airports

Passengers pay as many as six separate taxes and fees on a single airline ticket, adding up to more than $104 billion since 1997, the AP found.


_ Sardy Field, in the ultra-rich mountain playground of Aspen, Colo., has received $27.2 million in funding since 2005. While Aspen does offer service by major airlines, private jets and other general aviation aircraft make up the majority of its traffic, airport officials said.

_ Austin Municipal Airport, about 90 miles south of Minneapolis, is home base for 25 small planes and three jets, at least two of which are owned by Hormel Foods, a Fortune 500 company with headquarters nearby. Since 2000, the airport received nearly $16 million in federal funding. More than two-thirds of the takeoffs and landing are by small, private planes.

_ Greenville Municipal Airport, on Maine's Moosehead Lake, received $4.1 million over two years despite being the home airport to eight small planes and seeing fewer than 6,000 takeoffs and landings per year.

_ Marion-Crittenden County Airport in rural Western Kentucky spent $4 million in federal dollars over the past five years to transform and lengthen a grass landing strip into a 4,400-foot, paved runway capable of handling jet traffic. The upgrade began in earnest after Tyco Corp. pulled out of the region, taking 300 jobs with it.

James C. Johnson, a former FAA employee and pilot who chairs the local airport board, said the runway allows "corporate decision-makers to get in and out of here in a manner they like to travel."

"We're not saying money shouldn't be going to those airports," said John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist at the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the airlines. "We're saying it shouldn't be our money."

Passenger taxes are collected in noncommercial aviation only in instances involving the fractional ownership of private jets, air charter operations and small commuter flights. Instead, it contributes to America's air transit infrastructure in the form of a fuel tax that covers just a fraction of the services it uses.

A study released in February by the FAA said it cost $2.4 billion just to provide air traffic control for private and corporate planes in 2005. The industry contributed just $516 million in fuel taxes that year.

Another $500 million annually pays for weather forecasts and other preflight data for private pilots. These contribute to overall air safety, according to Andy Chebula, executive vice president for government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents more than 410,000 pilots and is lobbying heavily for retaining passenger taxes.

If private pilots have to start paying for such things themselves, they just won't bother, Chebula said.

Advocates of private and corporate aviation, which accounts for more than half of all air traffic, say the industry also costs far less to operate than commercial carriers, with their giant aircraft.

"A Cessna Citation doesn't require the same Air Traffic Control resources as a 747," said Mike Tretheway, a consultant to the National Business Aviation Association. "What's driving FAA costs are the airlines."

The main source of federal funding for small airports and airstrips is the Airport Improvement Program, which has distributed $7.1 billion to airports of all sizes since 2005.

About $2.2 billion of that went to small airports with little or no passenger service, many of them near popular recreation or tourist destinations. Most of that money was collected from commercial airline passengers.

Some airports have used AIP money to buy up surrounding property to create noise barriers between aircraft and neighboring residential areas. But an FAA audit found that six airports that used AIP funding for noise mitigation later sold the land and used $82 million from the sales for unapproved purposes.

Other small airports have used their AIP money to extend and upgrade runways and taxiways for use by today's heavier private jets, which often is pitched as an incentive for local economic development.

The operators of Plattsburg International Airport, in upstate New York, used $12 million in AIP funds to outfit the former Air Force base with better runways, a state-of-the-art landing system and a new terminal. These improvements helped lure aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, as well as the Department of Homeland Security and other tenants.

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