Kevin Burke THE HILL
Congress, Don’t Believe the Airlines
June 28, 2017
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  • Tomorrow, the Senate will have the opportunity to significantly impact the future of our aviation transportation system. But the airlines have once again resorted to their bully tactics to spread misinformation about the need to improve our aging airport infrastructure.

    We all know the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) that airports count on to fund essential airport infrastructure projects is the quintessential user fee. It is not a tax.

    Calling the PFC a tax is disingenuous of the airlines, especially when the airlines are advocating for the creation of user fees to fund an air traffic control corporation. Airlines like user fees when they result in record profits, but not when they help airports modernize facilities to provide more competition. 

    Let’s talk about the facts. The PFC isn’t collected by Uncle Sam and it doesn’t disappear into the murky piggy bank of the U.S. Treasury. Unlike fees for baggage, ticket changes, seat selection and front of the line privileges that go into airline coffers, the PFC is paid to a local airport and is required by law to be invested directly in airport infrastructure.

    Airports want to enhance the customer experience and promote airline competition with modern infrastructure to benefit air passengers and local communities.  Of all the potential solutions available, the PFC is the most cost-efficient and sustainable way to move forward to meet the needs of airports across the country.

    Airports also want to see the free market and local airport boards drive airport infrastructure investment. The PFC user fee should be set to respond to airport infrastructure needs, not old rules set by Washington.

    And the need is clear. America’s airports face nearly $100 billion in documented infrastructure needs over the next five years. Terminal projects – projects that cannot be funded with the essential Airport Improvement Program – account for 55 percent of total airport infrastructure needs. Improving terminals to accommodate more gates, bigger seating areas, and modern security checkpoints will result in shorter lines, lower airfares and a better passenger experience.

    Airlines have provided no evidence to rebut airports’ well-documented $100 billion in infrastructure needs. There is no factual basis for the airlines’ assertion that airports will overbuild if the PFC is uncapped. The average airport facility in the United States is more than 40 years old. Investment in airport infrastructure will go directly to increase capacity and promote competition, improve safety and security, rehabilitate aging terminals and improve ground access to airports. 

    What’s more, airlines have an important seat at the table in discussing any proposed airport infrastructure project funded by PFCs. Airports must consult with their airline partners. Airports often adjust projects when airlines make prudent suggestions. Airlines have a right to object to PFC projects. They rarely do.

    What airlines want is control, which should not be given to them because that would only undercut the fundamental purpose of PFCs to enhance competition and lower airfares through more price and service options for passengers.

    Instead, airlines argue they will support airport infrastructure projects through direct investment. Airline investments in airport facilities are important, but these investments do not come close to meeting airports’ projected infrastructure needs of $20 billion per year. That’s because airlines are only interested in investing in airport infrastructure when it benefits their individual bottom lines, not for the health of our airport system nor the benefit of passengers. 

    It’s almost laughable to think the airlines say they focus on passengers over profits when passenger complaints – some of which have been supported with video footage – to the U.S. Department of Transportation about airline customer service are at an all-time high, as are airline profits.

    As the policy conversation continues, we must realize that investment in infrastructure doesn’t require a crisis. But if we fail to act, we will be in crisis.

    We need forward-looking leadership that helps local communities realize the vast potential of a modern infrastructure to grow economies, connect families and businesses to the world, and drive innovation. We cannot succumb to the airlines’ bully tactics of misrepresenting the facts.

    Burke is president and CEO of Airports Council International – North America, the trade association for commercial service airports in the United States and Canada.