Supreme Court to hear dispute over airport fees

November 28, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In a case closely watched by both the airline industry and the nation's cities, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow about how much an airport can charge planes for landing.

Seven airlines sued the Kent County International Airport, outside Grand Rapids, Mich., which raised its landing fees by 50 percent in January 1992. The airport, which has about 150 commercial takeoffs and landings a day by airliners as big as a Boeing 747, charges the airlines $1.15 for each 1,000 pounds of gross landing weight. The landing fee for a Boeing 747 carrying an average load is about $600.

The airlines contend that the new landing fees are unreasonable and constitute an unconstitutional burden on interstate travel. They said that the increased fees covered costs that should be borne by the airport's concession operators.

The airlines are involved in a similar dispute with Los Angeles International Airport, which has threatened to effectively ban landings beginning Dec. 4 by airlines that fail to pay fees tripled in July.

The airlines consider the fees unfair and unreasonable and have asked the Clinton administration to intervene on their behalf. But the administration plans no action other than encouraging mediation.

In the Michigan case, the airport's board contends that the landing fees are needed to cover the actual cost of services received by the airlines, including operation of the terminal, and police and fire units. The board said that in the past the airlines had been subsidized because airline services had been paid with fees received from the airport's shops, car rental agencies and other concessions as well as from parking lots.

A lawsuit was brought by Northwest Airlines; Simmons Airlines; COMAIR, a Delta Airlines commuter airline; USAir; American Airlines; United Airlines; and Midway Airlines, which is now defunct. But the airport board won in Federal District Court, and that decision was upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati.

The airlines have the support of the airline industry. "The danger is in creating a precedent, which we hope to prevent," said Jim Landry, president of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines.

Mr. Landry said the use of fees from the operators of airport concessions had "been an issue through the years." But so far the airlines had prevailed in persuading airports to apply those fees to all airport costs, he said. "Up to this point in time, the revenues derived from the airport operation have been considered airport revenues and should be spent for the improvement and enhancement of the airport," Mr. Landry said.

Any diversion of airport fees from airport use is now banned by federal law, which some cities, including Los Angeles, are seeking to repeal. Mayor Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles said he wanted to use airport fees to provide more police officers, firefighters and other municipal services.

The Grand Rapids case is especially relevant to a dispute between Los Angeles International Airport and the major airlines, which have refused to pay landing fees that the airport trebled in July to $1.56 for 1,000 pounds of aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration directs air traffic in and out of airports, and it has said no airport could refuse to allow a plane to land, as the Los Angeles Airport Commission has threatened to do. But an airport could deny an airplane use of its terminals and refueling, thereby effectively banning an airline.

Mr. Landry said that what the airlines feared in Los Angeles was "that they're tripling the landing fees and threatening to lock us out of the airport." He added, "That would be a frightening precedent that would spread nationwide."

But Los Angeles airport officials contend that they are asking the airlines to bear the cost of the services they use. "The new fee reflects 100 percent cost recovery of airport expenses on the air side of the airport," said Ted Stein, chairman of the Los Angeles Airport Commission.

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