Thursday, March 2, 2017
DFW Airport chief joins political push to raise passenger fees that fund infrastructure
By Tom Benning
The Dallas (TX) Morning News
Dallas Fort Worth International Airport chief executive Sean Donohue says, "It's important that we continue to work with the airlines to find the right solution" on the passenger fees.
WASHINGTON — The chief executive of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport has joined a push in Congress to raise the fees that airports can charge passengers to fund infrastructure improvements.
DFW chief Sean Donohue and other U.S. airport executives told a House transportation subcommittee Wednesday that it's "critical" airports be allowed to increase the "passenger facility charge." Airports can currently charge up to $4.50 per each air traveler.
Though two lawmakers used the hearing to announce a new bill that would eliminate the existing limit altogether, it's unclear how the proposal will be received in Washington.
The major airlines, which see the fees added to their tickets, object to the concept over concerns that it prices out air travelers. And President Donald Trump outright dismissed the idea last month, saying that "the problem is I don't like raising fees or taxes."
Even Donohue — whose airport has close ties to Fort Worth-based American Airlines — pitched the proposal with some caution.
"It's important that we continue to work with the airlines to find the right solution, a balanced solution, so we make the proper investments," he said.
Airports have long clamored for more control over the passenger fees, both in terms of how much they can charge and how exactly they can use the funds.
The current $4.50 cap, which hasn't been raised in years, applies to "every enplaned passenger at commercial airports controlled by public agencies." The fee is applied at both ends, so one round-trip flight could have up to $18 worth of the passenger fees.
The money can be used to fund a variety of improvements, from runways to terminals. Other financing can come through bonds, grants and airport revenues. But airports' infrastructure demands — measured in billions of dollars — continue to grow.
One boost could come in the form of a bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.
The legislation would give airports free rein to set the passenger fee to their liking, probably a few more dollars per traveler. In return, the proposal would trim money from the available pool of federal airport improvement grants, The Hill reported.
"What is better than a user fee for the users of the system to pay?" DeFazio said.
But it's not that simple.
"Saddling passengers with more taxes is not the solution, particularly given the abundance of funding resources already available to airports for capital improvement projects," said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, an industry group.
Massie was quick to point out that lawmakers weren't increasing the fee — but instead just giving the airports freedom to set the fee. DeFazio also nodded at the big airlines' concerns, even as he mocked their pricing concerns by pointing out fees for extra bags and the like.
And then there is Trump, who's spotlighted the shoddy state of airports like LaGuardia in New York.
One airport executive took the chance at a White House meeting last month to pitch the president on a fee increase. Trump said he understood where the airport chief was coming from, but he said bluntly that "the last thing we have to do is raise the fee."
"Because you're only hurting yourself," Trump said, promising that his deal-making skills would find the money some other way. "Eventually, people are going to just stop flying because it's very expensive with all the taxes."
With that backdrop, Donohue charted a middle course.
He left no doubt that DFW supports an increase to the passenger fee. Asked by Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., what would happen if the fee wasn't increased, Donohue said the airlines would actually bear the brunt of future projects by paying off the debt on bond issuances.
"Ultimately, it's consumers who pay all this stuff," Sanford responded.
But Donohue also cautioned that a fee increase is "not the silver bullet." He said DFW needs to perform better to "generate more revenue." And he added that the airport doesn't want to see the fee "double or triple as we do these programs" — programs he said would stay on course.
"We will find a way, one way or the other, to fund our infrastructure needs," he said.