The House approved a bill Thursday to allow most of the nation's airports--including John Wayne Airport in Orange County--to impose a new passenger fee that could add as much as $12 to the cost of a round-trip domestic flight and raise $1 billion a year for U.S. airport expansion.
An attempt by California Rep. Doug Bosco (D-Occidental) to kill the proposed "head tax" as regressive and unnecessary was rejected on a 252-171 roll-call vote before the House adopted the bill by an overwhelming vote of 405 to 15.
The legislation, however, faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Key lawmakers there said they oppose the Administration-backed fee and would let the House bill die by refusing to take action on it before Congress adjourns this fall.
Defenders of the fee said it would help pay for new or improved airports in major hubs, reducing congestion and delays for millions of passengers. Opponents said an existing aviation trust fund already contains nearly $8 billion that could be spent for airport modernization.
Passengers currently support that fund through an 8% ticket tax, and some airlines--themselves hit with municipal or county airport taxes--levy surcharges of their own. Delta Air Lines, for example, levies a $2-per-ticket surcharge for passengers flying from Florida.
In addition, travelers entering the United States must pay $5 in customs users' fees, even if their bags are not inspected. That fee is unrelated to airport improvement.
Speaking of the plan approved Thursday by the House, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said, "There won't be enough airsick bags on the planes to take care of the nauseated public."
But strong support from Republicans, and big-city Democrats whose airports would benefit most from the proposal, won the day. A total of 134 Republicans and 118 Democrats voted for the fee, while 131 Democrats and 40 Republicans tried to kill it.
Advocates compared the fee to a toll that motorists pay on bridges or turnpikes.
"This bill is preparing for the 21st Century," argued Rep. Lawrence Coughlin (R-Pa.).
Under the bill, most airports would be allowed to charge up to $3 for each passenger using the facility. If a traveler made a stopover at a second fee-charging airport on the same trip, another fee of up to $3 could be charged, but the maximum would be $12 for a round trip.
The legislation would require the secretary of transportation to approve requests by the major airport authorities that wanted to impose the fee for expansion or noise-abatement projects. Airports that are now supported by "Essential Air Service" subsidies--basically airports in small towns and rural areas--would be barred from charging the fee under the proposal.
Under another provision of the bill, the 71 leading airports in the nation would be required to turn over half their receipts from the new fee to the federal government until they had repaid 50% of the federal airways improvement grants they now receive.
California airports that would be affected by this provision would be Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County's John Wayne, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego and Ontario.
"We currently don't have any plans for such a fee," said Jan Mittermeier, assistant manager at Orange County's John Wayne Airport. And she said that even if Orange County wanted such a revenue source, officials here did not like provisions in the bill that would give the FAA authority to approve or deny all proposed airport expenditures of fee income.
The current $310-million expansion program for John Wayne, which includes a new terminal, is being financed mostly by the sale of revenue anticipation bonds to be repaid from aircraft landing fees, rents paid by airlines and concessionaires, and federal grants.
Chicago's desire for a third airport to relieve overcrowding at O'Hare and Midway was a driving force behind the bill, according to Bosco and other opponents. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, strongly supported the new fee as essential for future expansion, noting that a third Chicago airport would cost nearly $5 billion.
But California Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) accused the Bush Administration of bottling up the surplus in the aviation trust fund.
"Consumers should not be asked again to pay for improvements when the money already paid is hidden away in the Office of Management and Budget version of a Swiss bank account," he said. "Airline passengers are about to be taken for a ride by the White House and Congress."
Democrats have long complained that the money is being stashed away unspent in order to falsely improve the budget-deficit picture.
Mineta and other opponents said President Bush already has asked that the 8% ticket tax be increased to 10%--a hike likely to be approved by Congress as part of a deficit-reduction package later this year.
Supporters of the fee included a sweetener in the legislation to attract votes from rural lawmakers. The bill would earmark some of the money received from the "head tax" for smaller airports, which would be barred from imposing their own passenger service fee.
Congress banned airports from imposing similar fees in 1973. Advocates of lifting the ban said, however, that the new fees would be limited in amount and carefully controlled to see that they were used only for airport improvements.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Perlman contributed to this story.