Flying While Black: Stop the U.S. Congress from Raising Air Travel Taxes

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., President and CEO National Newspaper Publishers Association | 9/16/2019, 1:23 p.m.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are championing what is essentially a regressive tax on airline passengers that would raise the ...
Airplane/airport Pixels

Working families in the African American community and beyond have a hard-enough time keeping up with daily expenses. Every mortgage payment, car payment, trip to the grocery store, stop at the gas station, or utility bill that shows up in the mail is a reminder of how expensive it is to afford basic needs. Now, lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have introduced legislation that threatens to add one more expense to that list.

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are championing what is essentially a regressive tax on airline passengers that would raise the cost of flying – painfully, on working families. If successful, the tax hike would burden African American travelers with significant additional fees on top of what is already required. Lawmakers who support the increase insist that the money will be spent on infrastructure improvement projects at airports. But, if our communities can no longer afford to fly, this becomes a moot point.

The tax, known as the passenger facility charge, is a locally enforced but federally authorized fee that every passenger must pay at U.S. commercial airports. Nearly every airport in America charges it. The fee is currently set at $4.50 per person per leg of a trip. Legislation has been introduced that would remove that cap, allowing airports to charge any amount they want.

Some have proposed raising the PFC to $8.50, nearly doubling the current tax. That would add a significant cost for all American families. Under that proposal, a family of four on a connecting flight would pay nearly $150 in this tax alone – a tax that is layered on top of the price of the ticket itself. Such a substantial increase could be the deciding factor between that family taking this vacation or staying home.

Fortunately, largely due to the recent surge of low-cost flights from many airlines, air travel has become a more obtainable luxury, remaining largely affordable for working people, whether in rural America, the suburbs or the inner cities. While still a relatively expensive proposition, air travel to get away on a vacation, or to visit far-away family and friends, without the proposed new tax, is still within reach for many individuals on tight family budgets. The near-doubling of the PFC tax will likely place air travel out of reach for many. And the reason for this hike is absurd.

The argument for the hike is that the additional money will pay for much-needed infrastructure improvement projects at airports nationwide. But here is the problem: America’s airports don’t need the extra money. Airport revenues are already growing strongly. Since the year 2000, airports have enjoyed revenue increases of 87 percent, without the cost of flights rising meaningfully. This growth drastically outpaces the actual cost of flying, even after factoring for inflation.

In addition, over the last decade, more than $165 billion in federal aid has been directed to airports for improvement projects at America’s largest 30 airports alone. More than that, the so-called Aviation Trust Fund is expected to reach nearly $8 billion by the end of 2019.