Congested airports. Crowded planes. Costly luggage fees.

Climbing higher

Under the current law, the federal "September 11th Security Fee" is $2.50 for each leg of a flight. It tops out at $5 for each one-way trip, and $10 for each round trip.

For flights booked on or after July 21, the fee jumps to $5.60 for each leg of a flight and will have no cap. A layover of more than 4 hours on a domestic flight, or 12 hours for international destinations, will count as a second leg and trigger an additional $5.60 surcharge.

Airline passengers don't need another reason to gripe as this holiday travel weekend comes to a close. But one's being foisted on them anyway.

Travelers are poised to fork over more money to Uncle Sam when they book a flight.

Not enough to break the bank, it's the latest levy from what's been called the "terrorist tax."

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Pennsylvania, is expected to more than double the fee it collects from every U.S. airline ticket. The proceeds are to help pay for the agency's payroll and other operating expenses.

The higher surcharge will kick in July 21 as part of a Congressional budget deal. It won't apply to flights booked before that date.

Under the new structure, fliers will pay $11.20 to the TSA for a standard round trip, assuming any layover is less than four hours. That's compared to $5 now.

Also, the current maximum $10-per-flight security surcharge cap is being dropped, which will mostly hit business travelers, who tend to make multiple multileg connections.

Airlines collect the money when passengers pay for their tickets.

The proposed increase is expected to generate an estimated extra $16.9 billion over the next decade for a $5 billion-a-year agency that's funded with a mix of tax dollars and user fees.

The industry's reaction has been harsh.

The trade group Airlines for America, which represents the biggest U.S. carriers, has said the TSA views passengers as "ATMs." It also has called the upcoming fee hike a "cash grab ... that drives up the cost of travel."

The trade group fails to mention that the same companies that pay its bills are getting fat on the expanding raft of a la carte fees they're charging for services that used to be included in the base fare. Necessities like seating assignments and luggage handling have become huge profit centers for the likes of Delta and US Airways, Charleston International's two biggest carriers

Airlines for America points out that the higher TSA fee will increase the federal government's cut of airfare revenue to 21 percent - from 20 percent, or $1 billion a year. Put that way, it doesn't sound so unreasonable.

By contrast, the five airlines that imposed luggage fees last year - four of them serve Charleston - collected more than $2.7 billion from those ancillary charges, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

No one likes higher fares and other price increases, but they're inevitable, especially in a dynamic, high-cost business like the air-travel industry.

As for the TSA, its user-fee structure hasn't changed since the agency was created in 2002. The agency said in its budget request that the extra fee revenue would give it "the flexibility to meet increasing aviation security costs" and better align "the costs associated with passenger security to the direct beneficiaries."

Americans are celebrating another Independence Day weekend, more than a dozen years removed from the last horrific terrorist attacks involving U.S. jetliners.

It's a timely reminder that freedom, including the simple but supremely liberating act of hopping on an airplane, whether it be to Charlotte or Shanghai, isn't free. Or cheap.

John McDermott can be reached at 937-5572.