Sea-Tac pushes to remove cap on airport fee for flyers

Mar 2, 2017 Issues: Transportation & Infrastructure

KING 5: Sea-Tac pushes to remove cap on airport fee for flyers
By Glenn Farley

SEATAC, Wash. - Seattle Tacoma International Airport's top executive testified Wednesday before the aviation subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives looking to raise a tax on passengers the airport considers critical to its future.

Called the Passenger Facility Charge, or PFC, it is a fee you pay every time you board a jet. But the fee has a cap; the maximum is $4.50 that can be charged on each ticket. Up to two flight segments can be charged a PFC.

Airports want to see it removed.

"There will be little available PFC capacity to pay for billions in projects identified in our master plan," said Sea-Tac managing director Lance Lyttle before House members that include ranking Democrat Rick Larsen of Washington state.

"We may have broken the sound barrier, but we haven't broken the ground barrier," said Larsen in opening remarks to the hearing, which is addressing multiple challenges facing the nation's airports. 

Right now, the PFC is paying for $3.2 billion in capital projects at Sea-Tac, including doubling the size of the north satellite, a new baggage system and new international arrivals facility. But another $10 billion in capital going out to mid century could be constrained without a higher PFC, said Lyttle.   

Lyttle says unless the PFCs are allowed to go higher, those costs could be paid directly by airlines, possibly making the airport less competitive in the future.

"Without higher PFC authority, our debt service on the bonds to fund master plan projects will flow directly into the airline rate base and likely driving the cost to airlines at Sea-Tac to the highest in the nation," Lyttle said.

Airlines, including SeaTac-based Alaska, are opposed to raising the cap. Vaughn Jennings, managing director for government and regulatory communications for the trade group Airlines for America says their position remains unchanged. 

"Saddling passengers with more taxes is not the solution," Jennings said, "Particularly given the abundance of funding resources already available to airports for capital improvements project." 

On its website, the trade group shows a variety of airport taxes in 2017, including a 7.5 percent ticket tax, international arrival and departure taxes, fuel taxes, and security fees.  All are in addition to the Passenger Facility Charge. 

The House hearing is part of the wider legislative debate to reauthorize the FAA, which has to happen every four years. Part of that involves continuing modernization of the air traffic control system.