Credit: George Danby

Airports are a critical part of Maine’s economy. Maine’s six commercial airports are responsible for almost 20,000 jobs and support a total economic output of $1.8 billion. The true economic potential of air service in Maine, however, remains untapped.

A survey by Airports Council International estimates that there is $322 million in infrastructure needs for Maine’s airports. Meeting those critical infrastructure needs could create up to 7,000 new jobs.

Standing in the way, however, are the big airlines.

Currently, four airlines control 80 percent of the nation’s air traffic, and they have leveraged that almost monopolistic power to squeeze every penny they can out of consumers. As a result, we see everything from runaway bag fees, price gouging in the wake of natural disasters, and an unwillingness for airlines to work with airports on critical infrastructure improvements — especially in small and medium-sized airports.

Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins, is leading an effort in the Senate to give airports the ability to raise the money necessary to make these critical infrastructure investments.

Collins has recommended raising the federally mandated cap on the passenger facility charge. The charge is the primary mechanism that allows airports to generate revenue to make much-needed infrastructure improvements. The federally mandated cap has been set at $4.50 since 2000, and its buying power has been dramatically eroded over time by inflation.

Collins has proposed raising the cap to $8.50, an effort that — unsurprisingly — the big airlines forcefully oppose.

Raising the passenger facility charge would put thousands of Mainers to work and allow airports in Portland and Bangor to upgrade their facilities and improve their air service offerings — potentially bringing in new carriers that would increase competition among airlines and lower the cost of airfare for consumers.

Instead of having an honest debate about the infrastructure needs at our airports, the big airlines have spent millions of dollars trying to deceive the American people and government leaders about what the passenger facility charge is and what it does.

Airlines for America, the influential lobbying arm of the big airlines, has launched an effort called “ Stop the Air Tax.” There is just one little catch — the passenger facility charge is not a tax.

Marc Scribner, of the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute and one of the nation’s more foremost conservative experts on aviation, recently penned a scathing article, debunking efforts to call modest increase in the passenger facility charge, or PFC, a “tax increase.”

Scribner writes: “The federal cap on the PFC is a price control imposed on airports. When a government price ceiling like the PFC is raised or eliminated, that is not a price increase. It simply increases pricing freedom. The PFC is also not a tax; rather, it is a classic example of a user fee. The revenue collected goes directly to the charging airports and is dedicated in law for narrow airport facility improvements. It does not go to the federal treasury to be appropriated by politicians in Washington to programs unrelated to airport infrastructure.”

Indeed, anti-tax conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have gone as far as to support lifting the federally mandated cap on the passenger facility charge all together.

The truth is that the passenger facility charge isn’t a tax, and the airlines know it. They claim it is a tax because they don’t want to defend the real reason they oppose any effort to lift the cap on the passenger facility charge and give airports greater ability to meet their infrastructure needs. The real reason the airlines oppose this effort is because the current system works to their benefit.

“When airports are constrained in bankrolling their own improvements, they often must turn to large incumbent airlines. In exchange for financing these needed improvements, the airlines then demand long-term exclusive use gate leases, which they use to keep low-cost competitors from accessing the airport. Gate access limitations have been estimated to raise U.S. airfares by more than $4.4 billion per year (in 2005 dollars), a significantly larger amount than that of the total annual revenue generated by PFCs across the country,” Scribner writes.

Don’t buy the self-interested lies that the big airlines are peddling. The passenger facility charge is not a tax and Collins should be applauded for her efforts to create jobs and grow Maine’s economy.

Christopher R. Barron, a Maine native, is a conservative strategist and pundit based in Washington, D.C.

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