Friday, May 26, 2017
Senators pan WH proposal to cut airport security programs, hike ticket fees
By Melanie Zanona
A Senate panel on Thursday panned a proposal from the White House to cut funding for airport security programs and hike passenger security fees tacked onto airline tickets.
In his fiscal 2018 budget request released this week, President Trump called for raising the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) airline passenger security fee from $5.60 to $6.60 for each connecting flight.
The administration said the dollar increase would generate an extra $530 million, which would be funneled toward beefing up aviation security.
But Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said at a hearing on Thursday that the idea “fails to take into consideration many practical realities.”
The airlines have long urged lawmakers to avoid raising ticket fees, which they say would discourage travel and place an added burden on passengers.
Congress doubled the fee in 2014, and a portion of the revenue collected from the fee is diverted to other parts of the budget not related to airport security.
"There is no justification for asking airline customers to pay more, particularly while our government is diverting billions of dollars in security fees away from TSA checkpoints," said Airlines for America, the leading trade group representing most of the nation’s major airlines.
"Tax increases are not the answer, and will only serve to drive up the cost of flying for millions of Americans who rely on air travel, cost jobs, limit service options to small and medium communities and ultimately harm the U.S economy."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), ranking member on the panel, took issue with Trump’s spending blueprint for slashing a number of the TSA’s airport security programs that were implemented in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
"I am concerned about what is missing in this budget when it comes to other priorities, like aviation security," Tester said. "The threat to aviation is very high — we’ve had classified briefings on this, in fact — but we also see budget cuts to several TSA security programs."
The budget would reduce the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams from 31 to eight. These "VIPR" teams sweep transit hubs, often using bomb-sniffing dogs, and are designed to serve as a visible security presence around airports, train stations and ports.
Lawmakers increased the number of VIPR teams in an aviation bill last year to enhance aviation security following the deadly bombing of an airport in Brussels.
But the Trump administration has said the program "achieves few Federal law enforcement priorities."
The proposal would also reduce TSA staff at airport exit lanes by 1,794 officers. The exit lanes don’t have screening checkpoints but have officers present to ensure that people don’t walk into the gate areas.
And a TSA grant program that provides money for state and local law enforcement to patrol airports would be completely eliminated under the White House budget, saving around $45 million.
"I’m very concerned," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). "I was governor on 9/11, and I can tell you that the support we got from the federal government to help us to be better prepared to fight terrorist attacks was absolutely significant, and we could not have replaced that in another way."