U.S. airlines are heartened by President Donald Trump’s support of creating a new air traffic control organization, but find themselves at loggerheads with the administration over its proposal to increase the security fee they collect from passengers to help pay for services of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
When the government last increased the security fee, some $1.3 billion in collections was diverted to help offset the federal deficit, said Sharon Pinkerton, Airlines for America (A4A) senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy. A4A, which represents most major U.S. airlines, opposes any further increase. “Our first concern is about raising a fee at the same time you’re diverting $1.3 billion annually away,” Pinkerton told reporters on March 20, during a teleconference to discuss the industry’s 2016 financials. “That seems backwards. The first thing that Congress and the administration have to do is return that money to TSA.”
In the inaugural budget document it released on March 16, the Trump administration proposed raising the Passenger Civil Aviation Security Services Fee instituted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks “to recover 75 percent of the cost of TSA aviation security operations.” That suggests the $5.60 security fee per one-way trip (not to exceed $11.20 per round trip) must grow substantially. The TSA says it spent $6 billion on aviation security expenses in Fiscal Year 2016, offset by $2.2 billion in collections—37 percent of its costs.
Trump’s “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” contends that $80 million per year in spending could be recouped by eliminating or reducing “unauthorized and underperforming” TSA programs to focus on its screening role at airport security checkpoints. It proposes eliminating TSA grants that support law enforcement patrols by state and local jurisdictions and reducing the VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) program that deploys teams of armed federal officers to provide security at rail and bus stations, airports and other transportation hubs.
Last summer, when the industry faced a “meltdown” at airports because of overwhelmed TSA security lines, airlines, airports and the federal government collaborated to alleviate the problem, Pinkerton noted. A4A and member carriers spent nearly $50 million on hiring contractors to support TSA screeners, and airlines now participate in a daily telephone call with security authorities to evaluate airport staffing requirements. As of December 2016, 9.5 million people were enrolled in the TSA PreCheck and Customs and Border Protection Global Entry expedited screening programs—a steady increase over previous years but well short of the goal of 25 million, A4A says.
“I guess the question would be, given the way we’ve worked together in the past, what would the need be for increasing the TSA fee? And that simply has not been demonstrated to us—far from it,” Pinkerton said. “We think that the system we have in place now should be able to realize those efficiencies and ensure that passenger wait times are not excessive.”
In the case of the TSA security fee, Pinkerton argued, the Trump administration apparently has decided that it can raise money by taxing airline passengers. “We strongly disagree with that increase, especially given the revenue diversion,” she added.
At the same time, A4A is “thrilled” with the Trump administration’s support of a proposal to create a new organization to manage the nation’s air traffic control system, separate from the Federal Aviation Administration. Noting that the federal government faces a partial shutdown after April 28 if Congress fails to renew spending, Pinkerton said a separate ATC organization would be detached from politics and better able to accomplish the FAA’s long-running NextGen modernization program.
“Frankly NextGen progress has been painfully slow, and we think that given the amount of money that’s been spent—$7.5 billion in the last decade—we, and I should say, consumers, deserve more progress than we’ve been able to make so far,” she said