The administration says that right now, only 36% of security costs are being covered by that $2.50-per-flight surcharge that Bush put into place in 2002; last year, that fee brought in $2 billion toward defraying the operation of the Transportation Security Administration. The rest is coming from other government sources, which means they're coming from other tax sources.
The Obama team hasn't yet specified how much they want to raise the fee, but assuming that $2.50 is 36% of the cost of security, if they plan to raise enough cash to cover 100%, we'll be paying close to $10 per flight.
Obama's critics may have a tough time justifying the fight against this one on philosophical grounds, and here's why: If flight fees go up, his budget can be attacked as yet another tax-like increase. Yet if he doesn't increase it and the money for the TSA are taken from the general national funds, then Obama can be accused of enabling government bloat. So he can't win.
Although Obama will have to shoulder the vilification as a rampant taxer, this quandary is nothing new. Bush tried to place $5 in fees on each flight but was shot down by Congress. Back then, the Director of Transportation said $8 per segment would be required to pay for security, meaning a round-trip journey with one stop would cost another $32 per ticket. Now, Obama is using the new budget as an opportunity to complete Bush's unfinished business. (You won't see that sentence in print very much.)
Choose your poison: Fees or taxes? When you fly, are you willing to pay more fees for the costs of your safety, and if so, are you satisfied with the possibility that higher ticket prices could have negative repercussions on the health of our air transit industry? Or are you happy with the funds for your air security mostly being pulled from the taxes you pay during the rest of your life, and if so, is it all right that people who don't fly have to pay the costs for those who do? Either way, the money's got to come from somewhere.
I have to add another question to the mix: Who's watching the TSA and making sure that it's spending its money as wisely as it could? The bureaucratic agency has already gotten in legal trouble for incorrectly billing airlines for the true costs of securing them.
Another option, of course, is not paying for security at all. But very few of us think that's a good idea -- which may be proof that this is an issue of national concern that might be better funded through the tax base. Something tells me the people who wouldn't want any security aren't ones who travel far outside their backwoods compounds.