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Private jets flying on your dime, report says

June 24, 2008|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

If you're feeling steamed at the airlines for how they've been treating passengers, you might want to save some outrage for those who fly on private jets, two advocacy groups suggest.

As most travelers endure long security lines, increasing flight delays and extra charges for checked baggage, they are helping subsidize far more elegant travel for a privileged few, according to a report to be released today by Washington-based organizations Essential Action and the Institute for Policy Studies.

In particular, the report contends, owners of private jets benefit from a disproportionate share of federal funds for airport improvements and don't pay their fair share of the cost of the air traffic control system.

"The super-wealthy, private jet set are shifting the costs of their highflying indulgence on to the rest of us," said Robert Weissman, director of Essential Action and co-author of the report.

On top of that, because they bypass the security that everyday people have to put up with, private jet passengers can drive -- or be driven -- to their aircraft on the tarmac, have their unscreened luggage loaded directly onto the plane, and board with keys and Swiss army knives in their pockets and plenty of shampoo and bottled water in their carry-ons.

"Most people don't realize the privilege of flying private," said Chuck Collins, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. "This should be a wake-up call."

Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, which represents makers, owners and users of private jets, said the report unfairly attacked her members, most of whom, she said, are farmers, small-business people and charities.

The report, Shilad noted, endorses a Federal Aviation Administration proposal, supported by the airlines, to overhaul air-traffic-control funding in a way that would charge airlines less and private jet operators more.

"We feel strongly that this so-called study holds no water and is just another airline-backed effort to justify a tax cut that would be paid for by farmers, ranchers, small businesses and other organizations that depend on general aviation around the country," she said.

Although the report backs the FAA funding proposal, airlines had no role in financing the study, Collins said. The study, from two groups known for taking egalitarian stands on such issues as income distribution, also calls for a luxury tax on the purchase of private planes and tighter security for passengers flying in them.

Among the report's findings:

* About $2.2 billion of the $7 billion in federal funds spent making capital improvements to airports over the last two years was used to fix up remote airports that primarily serve private jets, such as Sardy Field in Aspen, Colo., and the Napa Valley Airport in California.

* Private fliers avoid a variety of niggling fees that are added to the cost of a commercial ticket, such as a $3.40 segment fee, a $3 passenger facility charge and a $2.50 security fee.

* Passengers on private planes usually avoid a 7.5% tax on the cost of airline tickets, which is used to fund air traffic control services.

The FAA proposed last year to shift traffic-control funding from ticket taxes to user fees and fuel taxes. The proposal has languished in Congress.

"We sought the change for two reasons," said Ian McGregor, a spokesman for the FAA in Los Angeles. "One was to create a more stable source of revenue, the other was that it didn't seem fair that the commercial airline passenger should subsidize the business executive who travels on a private jet."

Private jets use about 16% of the air traffic control system's resources, but pay only 3% of its costs, McGregor said. Shilad disputed those figures, saying the FAA was manipulating the data.

Since 1990, the number of private jets in service has more than doubled to more than 10,000, according to the FAA.

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kathy.kristof@latimes.com

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