Opinions vary on how latest airfare fee will affect travel in Pittsburgh area

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Travel professional Dorothy Fallows has seen a lot of airline ticket fee increases over the past 25 years.

But she thinks one of the latest — the Transportation Security Administration’s 9/11 security service fee — is “so crazy” because a large chunk of the fee revenues won’t be used for airport security. Instead, it will be used to help fund the nation’s budget deficit.

“Isn’t that a laugh? They’re using the money for other things. I think it’s a shame,” said Ms. Fallows, owner of 7 Seas & Tours Travel in Brookline.

The TSA security fee hike, which took effect July 21, was required by a section of The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, signed into law Dec. 26, according to the website, www.tsa.gov. 

The statute called for TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, to restructure its security service fee and apply specific amounts of the collected revenues to offset the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years.

Originally, the TSA security fee, also called a passenger fee, was imposed per airline ticket to offset the government’s cost for providing civil aviation security services, the website noted.

The TSA fee for a one-way, nonstop flight now costs $5.60 per ticket; for a round trip with no stopovers, $11.20. Previously, the one-way fee was $2.50 with a $5 fee cap; round trips had a $10 cap.

Also, if a domestic flight has a layover longer than four hours, the connecting flight is now treated as a new trip and requires another TSA fee. For example, a round trip from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, with a stopover of five hours in each direction, would bring a $5.60 fee for each of the trip’s four legs, totaling $22.40.

Ruth Nagy, managing director of travel operations at AAA East Central headquarters in East Liberty, said her travel agents have not encountered any client concerns to date over the TSA fee. The office oversees more than 80 district branches, including those in Bethel Park, Pleasant Hills, Washington and White Oak.

TSA projects that, over the next 10 years, the fee hike will yield roughly $36.5 billion — $16.9 billion more than the pre-hike estimate of $19.6 billion, according to the Federal Register, Vol. 79, No. 119, published June 20. About $12.6 billion, or 35 percent of those fee collections, will be deposited into the general fund to offset the deficit.

For fiscal year 2015 — from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015 — the TSA projects to collect an estimated $3.6 billion in passenger fees, the Federal Register noted. About $1.2 billion of that amount will go toward the projected $564 billion deficit for fiscal year 2015.

The fee restructuring has been mired in controversy from the start. Airline industry and business travel groups continue to oppose it, and Congress recently sent correspondence to the Office of Management and Budget asserting that its intent was not to remove the fee cap on round trips.

“Our government must stop using airlines and their passengers as its own personal ATM whenever it needs more money,” spokesman Vaughn Jennings of Airlines for America, an industry trade organization, wrote in an email statement.

Sean J. McCurdy, president of the Pittsburgh Business Travel Association, said the TSA “tax” will impact business travelers the most.

“They’re calling it a fee, but in my mind it’s a tax. If it were truly a fee, it would be going directly into TSA services, and it’s not,” Mr. McCurdy said.

Business travel accounts for 70 percent of all weekday airline travel, he said, yet business travelers are not seeing any benefit or improved airport experience from the increased fee.

“Time is money for the business traveler. At the end of the day, this issue goes to a company’s bottom line. And I can assure you, last year when companies were doing their 2014 travel budgets, they did not include this increase in those budgets,” Mr. McCurdy said.

Local travel agents’ responses varied when asked about the fee’s impact on leisure travelers.

“If a client has a good job and is making $100,000, great. But if they’re making $35,000 or $40,000 a year or less, any increase, no matter how low, is going to affect them,” Ms. Fallows said.

While the fee hike itself won’t prevent families from flying to visit grandma or Disney World, adding more costs to an already stretched travel budget may trigger a need for them to alter or scale back plans, she said.

Budget travelers may feel an impact because lower airfares often include multiple connections and long layovers, local agents said.

“People are not going to stop traveling because of the increased fee. In the grand scheme of booking a leisure vacation, the fee is an insignificant amount when you look at the airline ticket that goes with the hotel, car rental or overall package price,” Ms. Nagy of AAA said.

Co-owner Joe Kiernan of Travel Leaders in Upper St. Clair said the upped fee won’t affect his clients much because they come from affluent neighborhoods. “The bigger issues that people should be concerned about are high fuel costs and surcharges, and high fees for preferred or priority access, things like that. Not the TSA fees,” he said.

Sandy Davis, owner of Davis Travel Agency in Monongahela, said, “An airline ticket is like alcohol and cigarettes. If someone wants it, they’ll buy it. It’s just one more thing they’ll put on their plastic [card].”

Freelance writer Kathy Samudovsky: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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