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Hotels Fighting Fee Increase For Courtesy Vans At Airport

Hotels are fighting sharp increases in the cost of picking up guests at Washington’s two largest airports.

At Spokane International Airport, the innkeepers won a reprieve Wednesday, when the Spokane Airport Board voted to postpone collecting 50 cents each time a courtesy van pulls away from the airport.

One local hotel chain said the change amounts to a 300 percent increase in its airport fees.

For years, hotels that offer courtesy vans have paid small fees to Spokane International and SeaTac airports. The money - $240 a year per van in Spokane - is used for airport improvements and maintenance.

SeaTac, near Seattle, increased its fee from 8 cents a trip last year to 25 cents this year. If all goes as planned, the fees will hit $1 by 2004 and flatten out at $2 by 2007, said Vernice Haddix, SeaTac’s director of ground transportation.

The Alliance of Courtesy Van Operators, a Seattle group, recently announced it will sue to block the increase, said Craig Watson, an attorney for the Port of Seattle. That suit has not yet been filed, he said.

At issue is whether a 1996 state law prohibits airports from charging any fee to the companies that offer free rides. Hotel operators on both sides of the Cascades say it does.

“We have letters from state legislators who wrote the law, saying that this was their intent,” said Rick LaFleur, president of the Spokane Hotel-Motel Association and general manager of the Airport Ramada Inn.

But SeaTac attorney Watson said nothing prohibits the airports from charging fees. In fact, they’re required to be self-sufficient.

His airport’s fee increase “reflects our actual costs” of providing roads and other infrastructure that the shuttles use, Watson said.

And while hotels advertise their rides as free, “I assume that they’re covering the cost of gas and the salary of their drivers some way,” such as building it into their room rates, Watson said.

On Wednesday, the Spokane Airport Board decided to postpone its fee change until the Seattle lawsuit is settled. That action came after Dennis McLaughlin, attorney for hotel operators, said his clients would withhold payment of the new fee, a threat that drew warnings from the airport attorney.

“I would ask you to reconsider that course of action. Otherwise, there is a clear violation of the law,” said attorney Jerry Neal.

The change from an annual fee to a per-trip charge amounts to a 300 percent increase for the three Cavanaugh’s hotels, said the chain’s regional manager, John Taft. The hotels made 502 trips to the airport in May alone, Taft said.

For some hotels, “this is a 500, 600 percent increase,” said LaFleur.

The extra money would pay for the $613,000 ground-transportation center that opened at the airport in March. Shuttles, buses and rental-car companies all use the center.

According to a survey by SeaTac officials, the old fees at Seattle and Spokane are a bargain, compared to other airports. Dallas, Portland and Minneapolis all charge $1.25 a trip, while Boston charges $1.30.

Other airports base their fees on vehicle size or the amount of time vans remain parked: 32 cents to 48 cents at Los Angeles, for instance, and $2.50 to $3 at Miami.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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