Congress Rebuffs White House Plan To Boost Airline Security Fees

White House proposal of increasing security fees by $1.5 billion or more has been rejected by lawmakers

Aviation As A 'Cash Cow'
The Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents legacy carriers, was dismayed by the White House proposal. James May, president and CEO of the group, is continuing to press for a cut in existing taxes and fees now that Congress has shown its opposition to new fees to fund airport security. He told the Wings Club of New York on June 21 that the president's proposal to increase airline fees would raise the industry's annual total taxes and fees to $17 billion. This is yet another recent example of the way aviation is treated as a "cash cow," and this thinking is not limited to the United States, he said.

May was referring to discussions in Europe to tax aviation, including U.S. airlines, in order to fund economic assistance to African nations. On June 15, he sent a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow urging the United States to reject proposals for special aviation taxes to fund international development projects. The letter was a response to recent announcements by the G8 finance ministers that they would consider such a tax. "If we are to restore and sustain a viable air transportation system in the United States, we must reject, once and for all, the notion that airlines are the world's cash register to fund various public policy agendas," the letter said.

The DHS appropriations bill approved by the House and the bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee are very similar when it comes to aviation. Both bills provide $30.8 billion in discretionary spending for DHS, roughly $1.4 billion more than appropriated in fiscal year 2005. Precise dollar figures for particular programs differ somewhat and will have to be reconciled by the House and Senate later this year.

The House appropriations bill provides $6.4 billion for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and federal air marshals program, and includes: $2.5 billion for passenger and baggage screeners; $85 million for the training of airport screeners; $468 million to procure, install, maintain and integrate in-line explosive detection systems; and $100 million for air cargo security, including funding to fast track pending air cargo regulations. The legislation also requires DHS to implement a security plan to permit general aviation aircraft to use Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport within 90 days of enactment of the legislation.

The bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides $5 billion to protect transportation, including: $2.3 billion for passenger and baggage screeners; $180 million to buy explosive detection systems ($50 million of which is to deploy next generation systems); and $50 million for air cargo security.

Airport Perimeter Security Lacking
The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), does not believe the DHS appropriations bill does enough to protect security. For example, he says the perimeters of passenger airports are not fully secured and it is not known how many of the general aviation security improvements suggested by TSA have been implemented.

In addition, cargo carried on passenger aircraft is not inspected with the same rigor as passengers and their baggage, according to Obey. He noted that last October, Congress directed TSA to triple the inspection of cargo carried on passenger aircraft and the agency has not yet implemented the law. Obey strongly supports provisions in the new appropriations bill that impose penalties on TSA if the additional cargo inspection is not begun before the end of this fiscal year. Obey is pleased the appropriations bill requires TSA to use downtime in checked baggage screening operations to screen air cargo. He also is encouraged by $30 million included for three air cargo-screening pilot projects, two at passenger airports and one at an all cargo airport.

Critics Find Fault
The legislation is much improved over the budget request of the Bush administration in many respects, including aviation security, according to Obey. "But, due to the nation's fiscal mess exacerbated by the costs of war and tax cuts to millionaires, critical homeland security vulnerabilities will continue to go unaddressed," Obey said.

Another Democrat on the committee, Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.), shares many of Obey's views about the legislation. Sabo strongly supports the provision penalizing TSA for non-compliance with the law to increase air cargo screening threefold. "This is still a critical security weakness, and the TSA needs to get down to business to address it," he said.