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Effort to boost passenger charge at airports worries, entices MSO

Passengers check into their flight at Missoula International Airport on Tuesday. The airport is watching legislation that could boost charges applied to passengers to pay for facility improvements. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As Missoula International Airport moves forward with the design of a new passenger terminal, it’s also watching legislation in Congress that could require passengers to pay added fees depending upon the airport they travel through when flying.

Known as the passenger facility charge, the fee helps airports pay for infrastructure improvements, such as Missoula’s own terminal expansion. But the fee hasn’t been raised in nearly two decades, and larger airports are pushing Congress to remove the cap entirely.

“It’s been 17 years since it’s been bumped up, and the cost of construction has gone up a lot in 17 years,” said Airport Director Cris Jensen. “AAA is using the term modernized, which simply means we’d like to increase the cap on the passenger facility charge.”

Reps. Peter DeFranzio, D-Ore., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., introduced a proposal in March that would lift the $4.50 passenger charge on every ticket sold.

Supporters argue the fee hasn’t been raised in years, even as airports across the country face more than $100 million in infrastructure needs. The number of passengers also has grown, further straining the system.

While airport officials in Missoula support raising the fee to $8.50, they’re opposed to removing the cap completely. Doing so, they said, could hurt Montana passengers traveling through the nation’s larger hubs.

“Bigger airports are lobbying to remove the cap, which means they’d be free to go to any level they want,” Jensen said. “A lot of the smaller airports aren’t comfortable with that for a number of reasons. Depending on how the legislation is done, passengers from Missoula flying to Washington, D.C., will connect over to another airport. You might get hammered by what Denver decides to do.”

Raising the fee has been tried before without success, partially due to strong opposition from the airline industry, which says passengers face enough fees when buying a ticket. But Jensen said airlines are racking in record profits and the legislation may have a better shot at passing than in years’ past.

Increasing the fee from $4.50 to $8.50 would generate roughly $3 million for Missoula International Airport. Jensen said the airport would apply the funding to service debt incurred through the construction of a new passenger terminal.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Jensen said. (Sen. Steve Daines) has presented some language that basically says that only the originating airport can see an increase in their passenger facility charge. All the smaller airports in Montana think that’s the right answer, so the passengers that use our facility and pay that increased fee would get the direct benefit from it.”

Bryan Ellestad, the airport’s deputy director, said the schematic designs of a new passenger terminal are nearly finished. The project, now years in the planning, will replace the current facility in phases over the next few years.

Demolition and construction of the first phase could start in late 2018. The project would expand the airport, replacing it with a modernized eight-gate facility with room for easy expansion if needed in later years.

“At this point, the general layout has been determined, though we’re still working on the details,” Ellestad said. “We plan to present the completed schematic design to our board in September.”

Architectural designs would follow in early 2018, Ellestad said.