The chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), will try to convince the airline industry in the next few weeks to pay an additional $6 billion in aviation security fees over three years in order to raise money to install baggage-screening technology at airports. If he prevails, it would be close to a congressional act of wizardry. The airline industry scored a major victory in recent weeks by convincing Congress to systematically dismantle a White House proposal to hike aviation security fees. But Mica has some arrows in his quiver the White House did not possess.
The chairman's goal is to raise the aviation security fees this year, most likely as an amendment to a bill authorizing money for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In an interview with Airline Business Report, Mica said he would like to increase the aviation security fees to raise money for "in- line" installation of explosive detection system (EDS) equipment. This means the equipment would be integrated into an airport's baggage handling process. So far, the airline industry has expressed little interest in working with Mica. "Their initial response was negative, but some [airlines] say we should look at it," he said. "I am trying to find the way to finance the deployment as soon as possible." Airlines have raised fares seven times between February and June and therefore could absorb higher fees, according to Mica. One possibility is for the government to take the money out of general revenues or the Airport Improvement Program, but that would be hard to do, he said.
That being the case, Mica will put pressure on airlines to support legislation raising the fees for three years. As an incentive, he is willing to work out a compromise whereby his proposed fee increase to pay for in-line EDS equipment would be balanced by repealing another fee known as the air carrier security fee, according to Gary Burns, Mica's legislative director. This would be the carrot in the classic carrot-and-stick approach. Mica also may use the stick, such as reopening congressional debate on a so-called passenger bill of rights. In the late 1990s, airlines said they would improve customer service when Congress threatened to pass a passenger bill of rights. Mica could hold the airline executives' feet to the fire by delving into the degree of passenger improvements since then.
Officials at the Air Transport Association, the group representing commercial airlines, could not be reached for comment.
Mica probably would need to get congressional approval for the increased aviation security fees. Congress gave the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) the ability to unilaterally impose regulations, but it appears the Office of Management & Budget would prefer that any proposed fee increase go through Congress, Burns said in an interview with Airline Business Report. A bill has been approved by the House to authorize funding for DHS, and Mica might be able to attach an amendment to that measure when it goes into conference with the Senate.
Mica's three-year aviation security fee increase would generate about $6 billion, according to Burns. This is substantially higher than what those appropriating money in the House and Senate have in mind. The White House also requested substantially less funding for in-line installation of EDS equipment. The Bush administration requested $250 million in its budget request for fiscal year 2006. Both the Senate and House increased that figure when they approved their DHS appropriations bills. The Senate bill, approved July 14, provides $264 million, and the House bill, approved May 17, provides $325 million. The two bills must be reconciled in conference, but even if the higher House figure prevails, the funding for in-line installation would come up short.