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Here’s why you could soon pay more for an airline ticket

By Jerry Siebenmark

December 01, 2017 10:32 AM

A spending bill before the U.S. Senate could raise the price you pay for an airline ticket.

The provision in Senate Bill 1655 would allow airports to nearly double a portion of the passenger facility charge included in an airline ticket, from $4.50 to $8.50. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill during the first week of December.

What that means for a family of four traveling on a round-trip flight with one connection is that they could pay $104 on top of their airfare and other fees, compared with $72 under the existing law.

Officials from airline industry trade group Airlines for America call it an unjustifiable tax hike and worry that it could have a chilling effect on passenger air travel.

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“What we don’t know is if you increase the cost … will that cut back on the growth, and we think it will,” said Sharon Pinkerton, Airlines for America’s senior vice president of policy.

But airports like Wichita Eisenhower National Airport rely on funding from the passenger facility charge to buy new fire trucks and snowplows and to pay for reconstruction of runways and ramps. The charge was a big source of funding for construction of Eisenhower’s $160 million terminal that opened 2 1/2 years ago, said Victor White, the city’s director of airports.

And more work needs to be done at Eisenhower, including to its two, main runways and general aviation ramp, the latter of which is being studied for a replacement project estimated to cost $35 million.

“There’s tens of millions of dollars of pavement work that needs to be done (at Eisenhower),” White said. “There’s a huge amount of capital projects that would be eligible for a PFC source in funding.”

Pinkerton said airports including Eisenhower have access to other sources of funding, including bond financing, public-private partnerships, cash on hand from sources such as parking and concessions and airline landing fees as well as grants from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program. And $6 billion in the federal aviation trust fund has gone unused.

“Our top point is … airports need to demonstrate the need and the lack of ability to finance projects, and they haven’t been able to do that,” Pinkerton said.

But trade groups like Airports Council International-North America said funding from passenger facility fees and airport improvement program grants aren’t keeping pace with continuing growth in passenger and cargo flights and the expense of repairing and replacing aging airport infrastructure. The group estimates the nation’s commercial airports will need $20 billion in average annual infrastructure funding over the next 10 years.

White noted that even if the law passes, it doesn’t guarantee each airport will raise its passenger facility charge to $8.50. An airport’s decision on factors in what nearby commercial airports are doing with their charge. “It’s not automatic,” White said. “You have to look at competing airports, say Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Kansas City. If they don’t charge a new PFC then we might reconsider if we would do one or not.”

But, he added, should the law pass with the increase in place, increasing Eisenhower’s charge would be seriously considered. “The increase to the PFC is officially in the city of Wichita’s federal legislative agenda,” White said.

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark