The Budget Deal Is Going to Jack Up Your Airfare

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Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza is a cheeky sort who revels in selling deep discount seats without any pretense of air travel being some kind of magical experience. To him, it’s a bus with wings and should be priced accordingly.

He’s just as direct about the taxes and fees that passengers have to pay. “Your effective government tax rate for this selection is 19%” was the admonition that came along with a fare quote on its web site. So you can expect Baldanza, along with the rest of the airline industry, will not be too keen on the proposal in the latest budget deal that raises the security fee we now pay to $5.60 for each one-way segment from the current $2.50 per trip leg.

The additional $1.2 billion the fee hike raises annually (in fiscal 2015, rising to $1.5 billion in 2023) will go toward more fully funding the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), those people at airports who yell at you to remove your belt and shoes and take your laptop out of your bag. That security conga line costs the government $7.6 billion in addition to the fees collected last year. The fee hike is aimed, like the rest of the deal, at trimming deficits.

The major airlines, which often have difficulty in raising prices themselves, don’t want Washington to do it for them. Passengers already pay $19 billion in 17 assorted government fees and taxes, according to industry lobbying group Airlines for America. (For instance, there’s a $2 carrier fee that Spirit records as “Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations.”) In a letter to deal architects Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Airlines for America pointed out that the TSA’s budget has increased by 18% between the fiscal years 2007 and 2012 while the number of passengers it screened declined by 11% during the same period. Instead, the letter asserts, TSA needs to get more efficient, partly by expanding “risk-based” screening programs such as PreCheck that allows frequent travelers to bypass the belt-and-shoes drill.

The airlines can scream all they want, but one thing to remember about the traveling public is that it’s not a natural political constituency. There are no Senators from Delta. (Although there have been Senators from Boeing.) That’s why travel taxes often get little resistance. Look at a hotel bill from just about any big or midsize city in the country, and you’ll always see a couple of room tax fees added on. Because what can you do about them? If you’re traveling to Chicago and don’t like the hotel tax rate, it’s not like any politician there gives a hoot. And since most people don’t fly that often and those who do are business travelers who aren’t paying for their own tickets the organized resistance has been easy to overcome. So once again, it’s going to be shut up, pay up and fly.