Northwest Airlines, Inc. v. County of Kent, 510 U.S. 355 (1994)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 92-97. Argued November 29, 1993—Decided January 24, 1994

Respondents, the owner and operators of Michigan's Kent County International Airport (collectively, the Airport), collect rent and fees from three groups of Airport users: commercial airlines, including petitioners (Airlines); general aviation; and concessionaires such as car rental agencies and gift shops. The Airport allocates its air-operations costs—e. g., maintaining runways—to the Airlines and general aviation in proportion to their airfield use, and its terminal maintenance costs to the Airlines and concessions in proportion to each tenant's square footage. It charges the Airlines 100% of their allocated costs, but general aviation only 20% of its costs. The concessions' rates substantially exceed their allocated costs, yielding a sizable surplus that offsets the general aviation shortfall and has swelled the Airport's reserve fund by more than $1 million per year. After the County Board of Aeronautics unilater-ally increased the Airlines' fees, they challenged the new rates, attacking (1) the Airport's failure to allocate any airfield costs to the concessions, (2) the surplus generated by the fee structure, and (3) the Airport's failure to charge general aviation 100% of its allocated costs. They alleged that these features made the fees unreasonable and thus unlawful under the Anti-Head Tax Act (AHTA)—which prohibits States and their subdivisions from collecting user fees, 49 U. S. C. App. 1513(a), other than "reasonable rental charges, landing fees, and other service charges from aircraft operators for the use of airport facilities," 1513(b)—and under the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982 (AAIA). The Airlines also asserted that the Airport's treatment of general aviation discriminates against interstate commerce in favor of primarily local traffic, in violation of the Commerce Clause. The District Court held, inter alia, that the Airlines have an implied right of action under the AHTA, but not the AAIA, and no cause of action under the Commerce Clause, and that the challenged fees are not unreasonable under the AHTA. The Court of Appeals affirmed in principal part, but held that the Airport had misallocated fees for the cost of providing "crash, fire, and rescue" (CFR) services.


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