Fees Take off Airports Charge More to Get to Wild Blue Yonder

Article excerpt

They've got you, coming and going.

In hidden but growing expenses that seems destined to raise the cost of flying, airports are increasing fees and imposing surcharges to help defray their costs.

Some of these fees are paid by the airlines themselves. But like merchants hit up for more rent or taxes, the airlines are likely to convey the added financial burden to their customers.

"Sooner or later, somewhere down the line, the purchaser pays, however many times it's removed," said Chris Privett, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents.

The cost of the direct airport fees represents about 5 percent of the airlines' overall expenses, a slight increase from a decade ago, said Barney Parrella, a spokesman for the Airports Council International-North America, a trade group.

But the size of these fee increases at some airports has far outpaced the overall rate of inflation, which is about 3 percent. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, fees have tripled since 1993, even with a government-ordered partial rollback.

Sure, it's more pleasant to travel through a dazzling airport with plush lounges and high-tech moving walkways. Renovations from San Francisco to Charlotte, N.C., have expanded the gates, repaved the tarmac, brightened the lights and made the terminals resemble chic shopping malls.

The trouble is, someone has to pay for it. Most commercial airports are self-supporting and don't directly receive general tax revenue. Enter the world of airport fees, a hodgepodge of charges collected from airlines, other airport tenants, and the passengers themselves.

This world is hard to untangle, even among aviation industry experts. For instance, some of the nation's 420 commercial airports charge airlines a fee for each landing. A few charge instead for each takeoff.

They base fees on criteria such as plane weight and size, but each has a different formula. Moreover, the fees can pay for a range of expenses that make it difficult to know which fee pays for what.

The complexity of airport-fee finances emerged earlier last month when the government agency that runs Newark, N.J.,'s airport upped the fee it charges passenger airlines by 25 percent, to $4 per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight. The additional revenue is intended to pay for a $350 million monorail that shuttles passengers between terminals and parking lots.

That's in addition to a $3 surcharge the Federal Aviation Administration has allowed the airport to collect from every passenger since 1992 to pay for a $250 million monorail link to trains serving the Northeast.

Lambert Field assesses landing fees based on the weight of each aircraft, and the airlines that operate there collect the $3 "passenger facility charge."

Travelers who leave from Lambert and make connections at other airports that also use the surcharges can pay as much as $12 per round-trip.

The landing fees and passenger fees come atop a 10 percent tax on domestic plane tickets that the federal government had been collecting until it lapsed with the budget impasse in January.

The ticket tax is certain to be collected again. It contributed more than 90 percent of the $6 billion raised annually for the Aviation Trust Fund, which pays for improvements to the air traffic control system and provides grants to airports. …