Sunday, May 15, 2016

EDITORIAL: Airline ticket tax funds free money for rural airports

Warren County is spending more money on the Floyd D. Bennett Memorial Airport.

But not really, we are told.

We know, you’ve heard this one before.

Warren County supervisors have decided to spend $525,000 to purchase land around the airport so that trees can be cut to make landings and takeoffs safer. And since the Federal Aviation Administration is picking up most of the cost—Warren County will pay just $25,000—the purchase is a no-brainer.

It’s not our money, we are told.

Let’s face it, most of us would not even know that Warren County has an airport if it wasn’t for the annual Adirondack Balloon Festival. And while rural airports like Warren County are touted as an asset in attracting business to the region, we’ve seen no tangible proof of that in recent years, while taxpayers continue to pick up operating expenses that are approximately $750,000.

Considering the advances in modern telecommunications, it’s hard to imagine many corporate jets being used on business trips to Warren County.

Still, we understand the supervisors’ reluctance to turn down such a large chunk of federal generosity. We just wish it was being used to fix roads and bridges.

We also know that in lieu of some major botany breakthrough, the Federal Reserve has still not found a way to grow money on trees.

So where do the airport freebies come from?

It turns out it is a traveler’s tax.

We found an instructive USA Today investigation from 2009 that shed some light on the free money.

The Airport Improvement Program has been around for about 35 years now. According to the USA Today report, the program raises billions of dollars a year thorough taxes on airline tickets. The tax can be as high as 15 percent on each ticket sold. And that may have gone up since 2009.

Congress has directed that money to be spent on “general-aviation” airports like the ones we have in Warren and Saratoga counties. These are almost always rural airports that have no commercial flights and benefit just a small number of private pilots.

The USA Today report estimated that the program gives money to about 2,000 airports each year for projects such as runway improvements and expansions.

That may sound familiar. The last one in Warren County caused quite a ruckus.

We found a spending database for the Airport Improvement Program on the FAA website.

Over the past six years, more than $137 million has been allocated to rural “general aviation” airports around New York to improve transportation hubs like Ogdensburg International, Oneonta Municipal, Potsdam Municipal, Finger Lakes Regional and county airports in Fulton, Columbia, Saratoga, Dutchess and Sullivan counties.

It is unlikely any of you has ever changed planes in any of these places, but you are still paying for airport improvements and upgrades there.

The USA Today article further found that Congress had expanded annual funding 10 times between 1982 and 2009. Funding increased from $470 million in 1999 to $1 billion in 2007.

We wondered why there was so much interest from Congress in improving small airports.

USA Today found that many members of Congress use “general-aviation” airports to get around their districts and states. Members of Congress took 2,154 trips on corporate-owned jets from 2001-06, according to a study by PoliticalMoneyLine, an independent research group.

We’ve never faulted the county for taking what was considered free money for a county asset. But it is now clear that Warren County should not draw our ire, but Congress’ continued funding of the Airport Improvement Program should.

Essentially, Congress has implemented a hidden tax on airline travel — as much as $75 for a $500 airline ticket — that we believe should be rescinded. We’re hoping Rep. Elise Stefanik might be willing to look into that.

Without the tax, the Airline Improvement Program could no longer subsidize runway improvements and extensions. That would force rural counties — like Warren County — to take a hard look at how important the county airport is to the community without the carrot of free money.

We suspect county supervisors would have a very different opinion of the airport as an asset if they had to pay the full freight.

And that would be real progress.

Read more here:

No comments: