The Air Transport Association of America—which represents airlines such as Alaska, American, United and JetBlue—is suing the city of Portland over utility fees the airlines say they shouldn't have to pay.

Under city rules adopted in 2012, the city's Bureau of Environmental Services charges the Port of Portland, which runs the airport, fees for offsite stormwater management and Willamette River Superfund cleanup. The port then passes the fees on to the airlines.

But the transport association says federal rules prohibit airports from diverting airport revenue for non-airport purposes, the complaint filed Feb. 5 in U.S. District Court reads. And offsite stormwater services and environmental decontamination of a river not adjacent to the airport aren't airport services, the complaint argues.

City Hall disagrees, says Commissioner Nick Fish, adding that all households and businesses within the city are obligated to pay their "fair share" of the fees.

In a 20-page complaint, the transport association lays out its case:

  • The airport gets no direct services from the city as a result of paying the fees. By 2017, the airlines will have to pay about $4 million a year for offsite, stormwater management. (There’s no estimate in the complaint of how much they will pay for Superfund cleanup, although the complaint suggests the annual total could eclipse the fees for stormwater in the future.)
  • The airport, which sits next to the Columbia River, plays no role in the decades-old contamination of the Willamette River.

An attorney for the association has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Fish, who oversees the Bureau of Environmental Services that assesses the fees and is named in his official capacity as a defendant, says the city doesn't believe the airlines have legal standing to sue the city, because they pay the fees through the port.

City officials also believe that the airlines do benefit from the city's efforts to manage stormwater beyond the airport and create a cleaner Willamette.

Fish calls the airlines' complaint "a familiar story."

"Big companies doing well are refusing to pay their fair share," he says.

And if the airlines win, he adds, the cost shifts to other ratepayers. "It doesn't just go away," he says. "It means other people have to pick up the slack."

The airlines aren't buying it.

"The city's self-serving perception of what is 'equitable' is irrelevant to federal law," their complaint reads.