The House yesterday agreed to allow up to 71 U.S. airports to impose a new head tax on airline passengers of up to $12 per round trip to finance airport modernization and expansion projects.
The "passenger facility charges," which have not been permitted since a short-lived experiment in the early 1970s, were included in a two-year, $18.3 billion measure reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. The House beat back an attempt to strip the head tax authority from the bill, 252 to 171, before adopting the aviation bill on a 405 to 15 vote.
All three Washington-area airports -- National, Dulles and Baltimore Washington International -- are among the facilities that could impose the new tax if the improvements to be funded are approved by the Transportation Department. The fees may be up to $3 per passenger, but no passenger would have to pay more than two airport charges per one-way trip.
Under the legislation, new gate and passenger-handling facilities could be funded by the head tax but not if they are subject to contracts reserving them for the exclusive use of a particular carrier. That provision, said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), would spur competition at "hub" airports where one carrier is dominant.
The head tax, a key component of the Bush administration's transportation program announced last spring, sparked a prolonged and heated debate in the House that fell more around regional than party lines.
Opponents led by Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Calif.) charged that the new head tax is another indignity to airline passengers at a time when the Airport and Airway Trust Fund already has a surplus of almost $8 billion and when air passengers are already paying an 8 percent tax on tickets.
"It's a double tax, a regressive tax and an unneeded tax," said Bosco, charging it would be another way for the aviation industry to "milk everyone indiscriminately."
Lawmakers from areas that would not benefit directly from the tax package, which would also result in the redistribution of other federal aid to smaller airports, said all passengers would be taxed to benefit large urban airports, such as a planned third airport in Chicago.
"If this new tax passes, there won't be enough air-sick bags on the airlines to take care of all the nauseated passengers," Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said.
But supporters said the additional revenue from the head tax -- as much as $1 billion a year -- is desperately needed to improve a severely overburdened commercial aviation system.
"It's necessary to look at innovative approaches to expanding airport capacity," Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.) said. "With this, everyone who uses the air traffic system is a winner."
The aviation reauthorization measure will also allow up to 75 percent of the FAA's budget to come from the aviation trust fund, compared with the usual level of about 50 percent. That is expected to draw down the fund's surplus to about $1.2 billion by fiscal 1995.
In addition, the bill authorizes $1.8 billion next fiscal year for trust fund financing of airport enlargement, safety and noise abatement programs and $2.5 billion for modernization of the FAA air traffic control system.
Despite the victory in the House, Senate support for the measure is problematic, and it appears unlikely that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will take any action on it this year.
Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), who chairs the aviation subcommittee, is opposed to considering the head tax until deficit-reduction negotiations shed light on whether airline passengers will also be hit with an increase in the 8 percent excise tax on tickets.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) remained "noncommittal" after a meeting Wednesday with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was in town to lobby for the new passenger fee, according to sources. Daley later spent a half-hour with Ford.
Maine and Kentucky may have little to gain from the proposed head tax because airports in those states are not big or crowded enough to justify levying a ticket charge in order to expand, one source noted.
Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.