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Travel and You

Are Air Transportation Taxes Flying Too High?

November 02, 1986|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

One of the less endearing aspects of air transportation these days is the tendency of rule makers and airlines to tack extra charges onto the price we pay for our tickets.

It's really getting to be a little tiresome. And expensive.

The biggest of the air add-ons took effect several years ago when it was decided to establish a "super fund" to be used to upgrade air-safety mechanisms throughout the nation. How? By an 8% ticket tax, that's how.

That was bad enough. But we learned to accept it. After all, everything's taxed nowadays, isn't it?

$3-Billion Super Fund

The fact that the so-called super fund has climbed to $3 billion or so and that it still isn't being used for its intended purpose is a whole separate story that we won't go into here.

That tax, of course, is in addition to a $3 departure fee, which international travelers must pay. At $3, the U.S. departure levy is much easier to deal with than that of some foreign countries, which charge as much as $20 to leave through their airports.

No matter how light, though, it's an extra charge we can all do without.

Recently, the U.S. government hit international passengers with another $5 assessment . . . to pay for the customs service.

I don't know about you, but I always feel that that's the unkindest cut of all. To know that it's your money that's paying for the person rummaging through your bags to decide how much you owe in duties seems somehow cruel and unusual punishment.

Within the last year some airlines introduced their own version of "Let's stick it to the customer" by imposing a $5 fee to offset the cost of the additional security services required in the wake of terrorist outbreaks.

Let's see now. By my calculation that's a total add-on of $13, plus 8% of the price of the ticket for passengers bound for certain destinations on certain carriers.

Wait, There's More

That would be bad enough, as far as it goes . . . even if it were the final tally. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be.

A proposal is before Congress to tack on a further $5 to overseas travel tickets, this one to pay for extra immigration-service staff.

In addition, a movement seems to be gaining momentum in Washington that would require domestic passengers to ante up anything from a quarter to $1 per ticket to build a $100-million insurance fund to protect travelers from financial loss in the event--some would say, the likely event--of a carrier bankruptcy. The fund would, in effect, be used to buy new tickets for passengers whose chosen airline closed down, a la Frontier, Hawaii Express, Pacific East and so on.

Disregard, for the moment, the apparent merits of the uses for which some of the money being gathered is intended. We all agree that more customs and immigration officials would help speed up the entry process, which can take two hours or more at some airports.

And who can quarrel with the concept of establishing an insurance fund to ensure some kind of financial safeguard for the traveling public in this day and age of failing airlines? Nor can there be any doubt, can there, that we all want our air traffic handling facilities to be the best quality possible.

And so on . . . and so on. Worthy causes, all.

Should Users Pay?

The question is, is it really our place, as users, to pay for them?

Is it not incumbent upon the government, for instance, to finance customs and immigration services out of the general fund, to which we all already contribute? Should not the airlines be required to protect their passengers from terrorists, just as they are required to ensure that their planes are airworthy and that conditions in their food galleys are sanitary?

Why should we, who are already paying a good buck to the airlines whose financial stability, or lack of it, we do not--cannot--always be aware of, pay yet more to self-insure ourselves? It could be argued--and has--that that function is one more properly performed by the air transportation industry.

It may be time for John and Jane Q. Public to start making noises about being forced to foot the bill for so many things arguably the responsibility of the government, the industry or individual airlines.

It's not so much the dollar amounts that are important here. It is the knee-jerk, pass-it-on-to-the-passenger position taken by so many legislators and airline executives in deflecting so many unavoidable expenses to the ticket price where, in some instances, it does not necessarily belong.

Remember, it's not all done on a national or international basis. From time to time we also get stuck arbitrarily with local levies, fuel surcharges, airport user fees and the like.

Leading the Way

And in this, as in so many other things, the United States may be showing the way to the rest of the world. The lesson has, apparently, not been missed in Europe, where certain nations are talking lovingly of a value added tax of as high as 17% on travel involving their airports.

This is open season on airplane passengers. Before the benefits of all of the low fares that some people claim have resulted from deregulation are dissipated by these proliferating extra charges, maybe we should make our views known.

How are we supposed to do that?

I have written to my elected officials telling them that it's time to draw the line. Maybe if enough of us did that we could make Congress, at least, start to take a second look at the trend that's developing.

I did read somewhere, didn't I, that there's an election coming up this year?

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