Congress Rebuffs White House Plan To Boost Airline Security Fees

A White House proposal to boost airline security fees by at least $1.5 billion a year is being systematically rejected by lawmakers and has virtually no chance of becoming law this year.

The latest, and most likely fatal, blow to the White House proposal is language opposing new fees in a report accompanying a Senate bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for fiscal year 2006. The full Senate could vote on the bill any day, and there is no indication the language opposing a fee increase will be stripped out.

A congressional source speaking on the condition of anonymity said the White House proposal is "dead in the water this year."

The Senate bill funding DHS - and the accompanying report against a fee increase - was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 16. The move followed several explicit actions by the House to derail the White House proposal. The airline industry has been arguing that raising airline security fees at this time could tip financially ailing carriers into bankruptcy reorganization or liquidation. Members of Congress apparently have been listening. Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it is possible a senator could offer an amendment during floor debate favoring the increased security fees. But such an amendment probably would not be approved, she said.

The White House wants to raise the security fee on a typical one-leg ticket from $2.50 one way to $5.50. For passengers traveling multiple legs on a one-way trip, the fee would increase from the current maximum of $5.00 to $8.00. The White House estimated that fee collections would rise from $2.652 billion this year to $4.1 billion in 2006, a difference of $1.5 billion. House and Senate lawmakers examining the White House plan believe this may be a conservative estimate and say airlines and their passengers may have to pay about $1.68 billion more a year in fees.

Senate Clear In It's Rejection
The Senate bill to fund DHS is very clear about its rejection of the White House proposal. In its accompanying report (109-83), members of the Appropriations Committee said "the President's fiscal year 2006 budget proposes a legislative proposal, as a general provision to the appropriations legislation, to increase passenger aviation security fees to generate an estimated additional $1,680,000,000 in offsetting collections, which the Committee has not included."

This is the very sentiment expressed by two DHS funding bills approved by the House in May. One bill, H.R. 1817 authorized DHS funding and the other bill, H.R. 2360, appropriated the money.

The House bill authorizing the money included an amendment against the White House fee proposal that passed by a wide margin, 363-65. The amendment, now Section 519 of H.R. 1817, said "none of the funds authorized" for DHS may be "derived from an increase in security service fees. . . ."

The DHS appropriations bill approved by the House is similar. A report (109-79) accompanying the bill is very explicit. It says: "The Committee cannot support the budget request to increase passenger security fees by $3.00, raising the fee from $2.50 to $5.50 on the first leg of each flight and retain the $2.50 charge for a second leg if the passenger is connecting. While the fee increase was proposed as a General Provision in the President's fiscal year 2006 appropriations request, amending existing aviation security law falls under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security Committee. Until the authorizing Committee passes legislation to enact this fee increase, this Committee is unwilling to adopt this budget proposal."

The groundswell of congressional opposition to the White House fee proposal began with yet another committee, the House Budget Committee. It expressed its displeasure with the fee increase in a report accompanying a budget resolution capping discretionary spending.

The final blow to the White House plan will come when the full Senate approves the DHS appropriations bill.

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.