For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, lobbying by the U.S. airline industry is soaring again.
But major carriers are learning that even with K Street as their co-pilot, they can’t steer clear of turbulence on Capitol Hill. The biggest commercial airlines are losing the argument that corporate and private planes should do more to cover the cost of a multibillion-dollar revamp of the air traffic control system.
On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee rejected a proposal favored by the airlines to ease their share of the burden for the overhaul by raising taxes on noncommercial flights. The bill now mirrors a House-passed version that airline lobbyists contend is unfair.
Their lack of success so far is not for lack of spending. Top industry players in the first half of this year boosted their lobbying expenses by two-thirds, compared with their average spending since the terrorist attacks, according to a Roll Call analysis of Senate lobbying reports.
The airlines’ half-year lobbying tab — $11.3 million for the top seven airlines and their trade group, the Air Transport Association — is their heftiest ever, and marks the first time since their post-Sept. 11 tailspin that they topped the $9.5 million six-month high they set before the attacks.
“People have budgets again,” one commercial airline lobbyist said. “And we’re facing some significant issues on the Hill.”
The years since the attacks have been rocky for the industry. Airlines secured a $5 billion cash infusion from Congress in the weeks after the attacks, but their stocks slid steeply as an already-dire travel slump worsened. United Airlines and US Airways filed for Chapter 11 protection. Laboring under legacy costs and struggling to rebuild capacity, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines followed suit in September 2005.
In recent months, the troubled carriers have clawed their way out of bankruptcy. Most recently, in May, Delta and Northwest emerged from Chapter 11. But signs of a financial turnaround for the industry have been tempered this year by rising fuel costs and a run of bad press from widespread delays and cancellations.
Now, as lawmakers debate a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines are having a hard time finding support for their pitch to reshuffle funding for the nation’s air traffic infrastructure — a result, several industry sources privately acknowledged, of waning goodwill from frustrated frequent fliers in Congress.
“It’s a tough audience for the airlines,” one aviation industry lobbyist said. “Members of Congress fly all the time. They know what it’s like in the system.”
Indeed, though hardly typical of his colleagues, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) is facing a misdemeanor assault charge and an ethics committee probe for an August scuffle with a Dulles International Airport employee after he grew irritated with a delay in retrieving his luggage.
At issue in the FAA reauthorization is how to pay for replacing outdated radar technology with a satellite-based system called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. Airlines want the FAA to move to a user-based fee system to help shift the cost to corporate fliers. David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, pointed to an FAA report that found commercial airlines make up 66 percent of air traffic but pay for 92 percent of the system. He said corporate planes, meanwhile, account for 16 percent of air traffic but pay only 7 percent.
Airlines are pushing a $25 per-flight fee for every plane — commercial and non-commercial alike — they say would help balance the funding equation. The measure is included in a version of the bill approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee but not in those passed by the House and the Senate Finance panel.
Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said his group is opposing user fees because they could make flying prohibitively expensive for its members. “User fees will kill general aviation,” he said. Instead, the group backs increasing fuel taxes to pay for the air traffic update.
So far, those on both sides of the debate agree the commercial airlines are facing cloudy skies.
“The logic is there for the change,” Castelveter said. “I can’t tell you why Congress does what it does.”