Increase Fees for Aviation Security

The attacks of September 11, 2001, led to sweeping changes to increase security in the nation's transportation systems. One major change occurred when the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 made the federal government, rather than airlines and airports, responsible for screening passengers, carry-on luggage, and checked baggage. Implementing the new standards required the hiring of screeners who were more highly qualified and trained, necessitating increased compensation and raising overall security costs.

To help pay for increased security, the law directed airlines to charge passengers a fee, remitted to the government, of $2.50 for a one-way trip with no stops and $5.00 for a trip with one or more stops. The 2001 law also authorized the government to impose fees on the airlines themselves and to reimburse airlines, airport operators, and service providers for the costs of security enhancements. In 2010, the Transportation Security Administration collected $2.1 billion from the fees on passengers and airlines--less than half of the $5.5 billion federal aviation security budget that year.

This option would increase fees to cover a greater portion of the federal government's costs for aviation security. Passengers would pay a flat fee of $5 per one-way trip because travelers typically pass through security screening only once per one-way trip. Implementing the option would boost collections (and thus reduce net spending) by about $10 billion through 2016 and by almost $21 billion over the 2012-2021 period. Under standard budgetary treatment, the collections would be classified as revenues, but because the Aviation and Transportation Security Act requires that revenues from the existing fees be recorded as offsets to federal spending, the budgetary impact of this option is presented that way.

The arguments for and against this option rest on the principle that the beneficiaries of a service should pay for it. The differences lie in who is seen as benefiting from such measures. A justification for the option is that the primary beneficiaries of transportation security enhancements are the users of the system. Security is viewed as a basic cost of airline transportation in the same way that fuel and labor costs are. The current situation, in which those costs are covered partly by taxpayers in general and partly by users of the aviation system, provides a subsidy to air transportation.

Conversely, an argument against higher fees is that the public in general--not just air travelers--benefits from improved airport security. To the extent that greater security reduces the risk of terrorist attacks, the entire population is better off. That reasoning suggests that the federal government should fund at least part of the enhanced transportation security measures without collecting additional funds directly from the airline industry or its customers.