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OTTAWA — The Conservative government plans to hike the security fees paid by airline passengers in order to fund millions of dollars worth of added security measures at airports.


Transport Minister John Baird announced the proposed fee hike Thursday and said it is necessary to protect Canadian travellers from terrorists.


"While we have a long way to go to emerge from this economic downturn, this increase, which is like the cost of earphones or a pillow in some cases, is necessary to protect air travellers from the threats of terrorism," Baird said.


The Air Travellers Security Charge currently ranges from $5 to $17 depending on where the flight is headed. The Conservatives want to raise the fee on a one-way domestic ticket by $2.58. For a transborder flight it would go up by $4.37 and on an international flight passengers would pay another $8.91 one way.


The transport minister said the government is committing an extra $1.5 billion to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to enhance security over the next five years. That funding will partly be generated by the security fee hike. A Crown corporation, CATSA is responsible for the pre-board screening of passengers and their belongings, baggage screening through airport explosives detection systems and screening and tracking of non-passengers entering airport restricted areas.


Ottawa has spent millions of dollars on airport security since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, and security was boosted again after the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner this past Christmas. The federal government is spending $11 million on 44 full body scanners, implementing a passenger behaviour observation program and adding more baggage screeners.


More revenue is needed to pay for those measures, and the cost should be borne by the airline travellers who benefit from them, said Baird.


"I think it would be wrong to ask the taxpayer to fund it. Rather, it should be done through a user fee," he said.


The government wants the higher fee in place by April 1, but the proposal will have to win the approval of the House of Commons first.


That may prove to be a challenge, with at least one of the opposition parties reacting to the announcement with disdain.


"This is just a tax grab, period," said the New Democratic Party's deputy leader Thomas Mulcair.


The government has repeatedly said it will not raise taxes in next week's budget, but that's precisely what it's doing with this fee hike, according to Mulcair.


"You can call it whatever you want — a fee, a tariff, a charge, a levy — but a tax by any other name is still a tax," he said. "They're just refusing to be honest with Canadians."


The airline industry has been worried that an increase in the security fee was on its way.


In a recent interview, Michael Skrobica, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of Canada, said the industry had been pleading with the government to fund added security measures through general revenues.


Baird, however, said Canada's airlines are in a better fiscal position now than they were a year ago and that "the costs of not doing this would be demonstrably greater."


He said the government will table an annual report to the House of Commons transportation committee outlining how travellers are getting their money's worth from the fee.


The government also plans to launch an "exhaustive" review of CATSA beginning next month, said Baird. It will hold consultations with stakeholders and answer such questions as whether the agency should even be a Crown corporation, and if it's spending its budget efficiently.


CATSA's budget is roughly $234 million per year, and it was also given an extra one-time funding boost of $355 million last year to improve passenger screening.


In a statement released Thursday night, the Canadian Airports Council said Canada's airports will work closely with the federal government on its comprehensive review of CATSA.


"While Canada's airports are generally opposed to anything that increases the cost of a plane ticket, we recognize that there is an increased burden on aviation security resources in this country today," said CAC president and CEO Jim Facette. "We welcome a review of CATSA in order to ensure that the money collected from the Air Traveller's Security Charge is accounted for and spent on aviation security in a transparent manner."


The Canadian Airports Council is the voice for Canada's airports. Its 47 members represent more than 200 airports in every province and territory.


(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)


There goes the neighbourhood.

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