U.S. News

Taxes and Fees Grow for Air Travelers

Susan Stellin|The New York Times

A recent search for a flight from New York to London turned up an eye-catching fare: $229 each way on several airlines. But nine government taxes and fees added $162 — more than a quarter of the total ticket price.

Baggage fees may be the cause of more grumbling among passengers, but airlines are trying to draw attention to other charges lurking in the fine print: all the taxes and fees that go toward airport projects, air traffic control, airport security, customs inspections and, in some cases, projects that have nothing to do with flying — like a French “solidarity tax” on departing passengers that is meant to subsidize purchases of drugs to fight diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in developing countries.

Passengers are pictured at Check-In desks at London's Heathrow airport.
Carl de Souza | AFP | Getty Images

Most of these taxes are small individually, but they can add up to a significant share of the price of a ticket, particularly for international flights. While there is some debate about precisely how much ticket taxes have risen in recent years, airline representatives say that governments are increasingly turning to travelers to raise revenue in lean times, and that there is little oversight over how the money is spent.

“We are taxed entirely too much,” said David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group that has been battling efforts to add or increase air travel taxes. “We can’t have outside organizations reaching out for more when the airline industry is losing billions of dollars. There just has to be some other way to fund these programs people want to introduce.”

For travel within the United States, there are four basic taxes on airfares: a passenger ticket tax (7.5 percent of the base fare); a flight segment tax ($3.70 a flight); a passenger facility charge (up to $4.50 a segment); and a federal security fee, also called the Sept. 11 fee ($2.50 a segment). The first two taxes go to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which finances the Federal Aviation Administration; passenger facility charges are passed on to airports; and security fees finance the Transportation Security Administration.

Carriers have been lobbying against proposals to increase these fees. One proposal would raise the maximum passenger facility charge that airports can collect to $7 from the current $4.50 per flight segment (still on the table). Another would increase the $2.50 federal security fee (budgeted to go up by $1 a flight in 2012). And a third would raise by 50 cents the $5 animal and plant health inspection fee paid by passengers arriving in the United States (an idea withdrawn last year). Although some of these taxes have risen in the last decade, it is tough to calculate precisely how much the overall tax burden has changed. Airline representatives say taxes and fees account for 25 percent of a domestic ticket price, but according to two professors who have examined millions of ticket records from 1993 to 2008, the effective tax rate has increased only 11 percent to 16 percent of the average domestic fare in that time.

“What’s happened is airfares have become cheaper, so proportionately taxes have gone up,” said Joakim Karlsson, a professor of aviation policy at Daniel Webster College, who heads the project with Amedeo R. Odoni, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In fact, their analysis found that the total tax on a domestic ticket has been relatively constant since 1993: about $52, adjusted for inflation.

But averages can be misleading because some taxes are a percentage of the base fare, which varies widely, and some are based on the number of flight segments, so passengers with connections pay more than those who fly nonstop.

International travelers are even more likely to feel the tax collectors’ pinch, as governments around the world have increased passenger fees to pay for security, airport improvements, customs inspections, tourism promotions and environmental concerns — though critics say many of these taxes end up in general treasury accounts.

Exhibit A in that regard is Britain’s Air Passenger Duty, which went up last year and is scheduled to increase again this fall. This fee varies based on the passenger’s class of service and destination; from London to New York, it is £45 in economy class and £60 in premium cabins, and will rise to £90 ($137) and £120 ($183), respectively, on Nov. 1.

“The Air Passenger Duty is supposedly an environmental tax, but all these taxes go into the treasury,” said Brian Pearce, chief economist for the International Air Transport Association, adding that France’s solidarity tax — 1 euro to 40 euros a passenger — meets a similarly murky end.

“We fear there are going to be more taxes coming down the road as governments look to reduce budget deficits,” he said. “It’s contagious.”

The United States is not immune to the bug. Congress just passed legislation that will charge foreigners, from about three dozen countries, who do not need visas $10 to enter the United States. The money will be used to promote travel to America, an idea that has been criticized abroad.

Kenneth J. Button, a professor of transportation policy at George Mason University, said airlines are vulnerable conduits for these types of taxes because air travel was once considered a luxury, creating the perception that passengers have deep pockets. And putting the fees on airline tickets, he said, makes them easier to collect.

Professor Button, who has done consulting work for the Air Transport Association, said the problem with many of these taxes is that there is little accountability on how the money is used, with airports, the T.S.A. and the F.A.A. all subject to criticism over wasteful or ineffective spending.

“I would argue these taxes are too high simply because there’s no incentive for providers to keep their costs low,” Professor Button said.

But airport representatives counter that the $4.50 limit on the passenger facility charge has not increased since 2001 and that the money is used to build new runways, improve terminals, reduce noise and other projects — all of which go through a review process that includes the airlines.

“Ninety-five percent of the requests that go to the F.A.A. are done with the approval of the airlines,” said Jane Calderwood, vice president for government and political affairs at the Airports Council International-North America, which supports increasing the cap on the facility charge to $7.50 and indexing it for inflation.

Another objection to the current tax structure, raised by the National Business Travel Association, is that taxes and fees paid on nonrefundable tickets are not always refunded if a ticket is not used.

The group has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate this issue, arguing that the government and airport authorities should refund the fees if a trip is canceled.

“Who’s responsible for getting those taxes back?” said Shane Downey, the business travel association’s director for public policy. “There’s talk that there’s quite a lot of money being lost.”