Eager to find new revenues to fend off automatic spending cuts next month, Republicans are embracing an increase to the so-called Sept. 11 security fee on U.S. airline tickets they’ve long resisted.
It’s one of the few money-raisers that has bipartisan support in budget negotiations, even as its surprise emergence mobilized resistance from airlines in the U.S. and abroad, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Consumer Travel Alliance.
“The threat of a TSA passenger tax increase is painfully real,” said Sean Kennedy, senior vice president, global government affairs at Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group. “If there’s a deal assembled, there’s a strong chance we’ll be one of the core components.”
The Department of Homeland Security proposed raising the fee in its 2013 budget request to $5 per one-way trip, no matter how many stops, up from $2.50 per flight segment.
The fee was created as the Transportation Security Agency was set up in 2002. It has never been raised, even as the agency grew to more than 50,000 employees, added high-technology explosive scanners at airports throughout the country and expanded beyond checkpoint screening.
Fee collections peaked in 2007 and covered 25% of the TSA’s aviation security costs last year — $1.88 billion of $7.48 billion. Increasing the fee to $5 per one-way trip would generate $317 million, the administration said. Airlines pay another security fee that totaled $380 million in 2012, according to TSA.
David Castelveter, a TSA spokesman, declined to comment, citing an agency policy against discussing pending legislation.
Attempts to raise the fee have been made since President George W. Bush’s administration and “have garnered little congressional support,” the Congressional Research Service said in an October 2012 analysis. President Barack Obama’s proposals raising the fee have been rebuffed by Republicans, until now.
Lawmakers have told TSA Administrator John Pistole during budget hearings that the Department of Homeland Security’s proposal to raise the fee wouldn’t fly. The House Appropriations Committee called $122 million from the fee revenue in the 2013 budget an “unauthorized, fictitious offset.” Neither the Senate Commerce Committee nor the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversee the TSA, have held a hearing on a fee increase in the past two years.
TSA’s policy goal has been to offset about 80 percent of its aviation-security related costs through fees, according to the Government Accountability Office. Doing that would require an additional $4 billion, meaning a one-way fee of $14, the GAO estimated.
Congressional budget negotiators are trying to undo the damage of this year’s across-the-board automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The focus is coming up with a $50 billion to $100 billion deal by a Dec. 13 deadline to avert more cuts that both parties agree are hurting the military, scientific research and education.
Senate Democrats such as Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray insist that new revenue be part of a deal. House Republicans, including Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, oppose new taxes. Ryan’s alternatives include increasing the TSA fee, according to aides. Raising fees is seen as a bargaining chip to Republicans who have pledged to hold the line on taxes.
Raising the TSA security fee makes sense to government officials trying to find alternatives to cutting defense programs and senior citizen entitlements, said Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Virginia group that advocates for responsible federal budgets.
The $2.50 fee hasn’t come close to covering the agency’s costs and boosting the fee so travelers pay a little more of their expenses is one of the low-hanging fruits available to Congress, Gordon said.
A White House proposal of increasing security fees by $1.5 billion or more has been rejected by lawmakers.
Airlines win a major victory against higher fees in the midst of an industry downturn.
The reality is most of us will open our wallets wider for convenient and comfortable air travel, which gets us from Point A to Point B in a safe and efficient manner
The Chair of the House aviation subcommittee will try to convince the airline industry to pay an additional $6 billion in aviation security fees.