The federal government has taken billions of dollars from the taxes and fees paid by airline passengers every time they fly and awarded it to small airports used mainly by private pilots and globe-trotting corporate executives.
Some of these "general aviation" facilities used the federal dollars for enhancements such as longer runways and passenger terminals aimed at luring traffic, an Associated Press review has found. And the money comes with little oversight, and at the expense of an increasingly beleaguered air transportation system.
"They're making out like bandits," said Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at Southern California's Reason Foundation and author of several studies on air transportation costs. "It's not only that airline passengers are paying more than their fair share, but they're being overtaxed to give private jets a free ride."
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. Yet these assessments often are overlooked by the millions who click the "buy" button to purchase tickets online, even though they can exceed 25 percent of the total airfare.
Travelers deal with more hassles than ever. In 2006, more passengers were bumped, their flights delayed or their bags lost than in 2005, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating report released earlier this month.
"What are people getting for their money?" said Kenneth Button, a professor of transportation at George Mason University's School of Public Policy and an expert on air transit taxation. "Delays are increasing. How can consumers make a sensible assessment on how the money is being spent? You need an abacus to figure out all the costs."
Congress will decide later this year whether to curtail the huge public subsidy for small airports, while pilots' associations, airport managers and other interested groups are fighting to keep it.
Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents 8,000 operators of private jets and other aircraft, said all Americans benefit from the proliferation of small airports throughout the country. They aid emergency preparedness and critical services such as medical evacuations and mail delivery, he noted.
Without help from the federal government in the form of passenger taxes, many would be unable to survive, Bolen said.
"Not all aircraft are the same nor do they impose the same costs on the system," he said. "If we were grounded tomorrow, the system would cost the same."
Mark Cooper of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America said the key question is whether passengers are paying for something and getting nothing in return.
"It costs me more to park my car at National Airport than it costs to park a corporate jet," he said.
The taxes and fees finance the Federal Aviation Administration and its air traffic control operations, as well as passenger and baggage screening, federal air marshals and police presence at the nation's commercial hubs.
Hundreds of smaller airports also are among the beneficiaries. These run the gamut from remote rural airstrips serving crop-dusters and hobbyists, to "executive" airports serving corporate jets and exclusive resort destinations:
_ J.T. Wilson Field in Somerset, Ky. got more than $12 million since 2001, much of it through the influence of local Rep. Hal Rogers, a longtime Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee who uses the airfield for trips home. Wilson Field is home base to 26 small planes and one jet. Despite millions in improvements, including a passenger terminal, the airport has yet to see scheduled commercial service.
With more planes in the sky, the agency and the airlines are pushing to end the ticket tax and find a way to redistribute the burden of funding air traffic control.
The bill, which is yet to be introduced, would shift some of the burden for funding the FAA from commercial airline passengers to private plane and jet operators.