Guest Columnist

Congress must keep air fares in check

A Transportation Security Administration employee gives instructions to flight passengers as they put their carry-on belongings into bins at the security checkpoint at The Eastern Iowa Airport in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. TSA employees, parts of the Department of Homeland Security, are considered essential federal workers and are working without pay until the government shutdown is resolved. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A Transportation Security Administration employee gives instructions to flight passengers as they put their carry-on belongings into bins at the security checkpoint at The Eastern Iowa Airport in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. TSA employees, parts of the Department of Homeland Security, are considered essential federal workers and are working without pay until the government shutdown is resolved. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowans beware: the price of plane tickets could soon soar. Airport executives are lobbying Congress to raise the “passenger facility charge,” a hidden tax on each ticket that funds airport maintenance and upgrades.

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer can keep air travel affordable by opposing this unnecessary tax hike. There’s no legitimate reason to raise the PFC — airports already have more than enough money to operate and spruce up facilities.

Currently, Congress caps the PFC at $4.50 per flight leg. So a traveler with one layover each way on a round-trip flight may spend $18 on the tax. Right now, 98 of the nation’s 100 largest airports collect the tax.

Recently, some lawmakers and airport lobbyists have suggested increasing the PFC cap to $8.50 per leg. Others have proposed eliminating the cap altogether. Proponents of the hike claim airports need extra PFC revenue to fund new infrastructure projects.

These airports are simply getting greedy. Americans already pay $6.9 billion in airport taxes each year. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that by year’s end, U.S. airports will have collected $3.58 billion in PFCs alone.

Airports raked in $30 billion in revenue in 2017 alone — a 47 percent increase from 2000 — from taxes, user fees, and rents from all the restaurants and retail stores that set up shop in terminals.

In fact, airports have so much money, they can’t even use it all. Airport officials have diverted over $5.4 billion to unrelated projects in the past decade.

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Simply put, airports are thriving. Just consider our own the Eastern Iowa Airport, currently undergoing a $65 million terminal upgrade. The 54,000 square-foot addition features a new elevator, escalator, and stairs, as well as a holding room and outdoor patio. It’ll also outfit EIA with 740 solar panels and a 29-foot wall of plants.

EIA is busier than ever. The airport welcomed a record 1.14 million travelers last year.

Despite this traffic, airport executives have held maintenance and construction costs down. “Even while we’re doing these projects, we’re able to drive down our operating costs, which is phenomenal, quite honestly,” Airport Director Marty Lenss told The Gazette.

The Eastern Iowa Airport also recently received nearly $9 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to expand its cargo operations. This generous grant will allow the airport to upgrade its storage capacity. Clearly the airport isn’t in financial trouble.

Raising the PFC would make it much harder for Iowa’s families and businesses to afford air travel — especially since there aren’t many direct flights out of small airports like ours. The average domestic ticket out of EIA already costs $445 — more than the cost of leaving the Quad Cities or Des Moines.

A higher PFC could even damage our local economy by deterring tourists and trips back home. Higher airfares could drive airline passengers to larger airports like Chicago and Minneapolis. Local hotels, restaurants, and transportation services would all pay the price.

Fortunately, our own congresswoman, Finkenauer, serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has a say in the PFC hike. Let’s hope she stands up for Iowa’s travelers and votes against raising the cap.

• Douglas “Dee” Stewart is the former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa.

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