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United Airlines leads air lobbying as FAA bill stalls

Lawmakers dig in on pilot training

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., says additional National Airport slots would be “pro-consumer.”
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., says additional National Airport slots would be “pro-consumer.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

United Airlines outspent its competitors in federal lobbying through the third quarter as it opposes a proposal that would add more flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The airline industry and its affiliates have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying so far in 2023, marked by a post-pandemic surge in flight travel that exacerbated an air traffic controller shortage and consumer frustration with flight delays, cancellations and fees.

United Airlines has remained at the front of the pack, jumping from spending of about $980,000 in the first quarter to $3.6 million in the second. The airline slightly decreased spending in the third quarter to $2.9 million, but remains ahead of Airlines for America, the industry group, which spent $1.5 million in Q3.

In total, United has spent $7.5 million in federal lobbying efforts so far in 2023, according to disclosures filed with the House and Senate. Airlines for America has spent $4.4 million.

Delta Air Lines ranks third, spending roughly $1.3 million in each of the first three quarters of the year. American Airlines spent about $1.2 million per quarter.

Although federal lobbying spending overall has dropped during the 118th Congress, lawmakers’ scrutiny of aviation issues as they consider a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill has kept airline spending healthy. A report by OpenSecrets.org said the airline industry spent $17.4 million on federal lobbying in the first half of 2023, $4 million more than the same period last year.

United Airlines reported lobbying on multiple issues, including a proposal that would add long-distance flight slots to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — a controversial issue that’s arisen in House and Senate FAA reauthorization bill negotiations.

Under a perimeter rule by Congress set in the 1960s, National is essentially a short-haul airport, limited to flights within 1,250 miles, with some exemptions. Delta Air Lines, in association with the Capital Access Alliance, has led a push in Congress to add as many as 28 additional flight slots into the airport and 28 out, for a total of 56.

The proposals have garnered support from some lawmakers hailing from Georgia, as Delta is based in Atlanta, as well as those from areas outside of the 1,250-mile perimeter. Most recently, House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chair Garret Graves, R-La., threw his support behind additional National slots last week, calling it a “pro-consumer” move.

“There has been an explosion in air travel and so you are still going to have ample service or ample demand for you at Dulles Airport, but we also are going to be taking advantage of the convenience of National,” Graves said at an American Enterprise Institute event last month. “I think there is a balance that can be struck there.”

United Airlines has aligned itself with lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia who argue the proposal would overload an airport already at capacity and siphon customers from the Washington Dulles International Airport, which has no flight restrictions and is located roughly 22 miles from downtown Washington. Dulles is a United hub airport.

American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have also voiced concerns about additional slots at National, which has the FAA designation of DCA.

“As the FAA and the local airport authority, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), have made clear, DCA currently operates at capacity and is in danger of being overburdened by additional flights,” the three airlines wrote to House leadership in July. “The airport, significantly constrained by a lack of ground and air space and its proximity to federal and military installations, is delay prone, has the busiest runway in America, ranks third in non-carrier caused cancelations, and tenth among the most delayed airports.”

The House FAA reauthorization bill passed the chamber without any additional slots for DCA. The Senate FAA bill remains stalled over controversial pilot training language, but sources familiar with FAA discussions said the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee had reached a deal in June to add some flight slots to DCA.

Airlines are lobbying on other issues arising in FAA reauthorization talks as well. Delta listed improvements to the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions system that failed in January, causing a nationwide ground stop. Southwest Airlines mentioned air traffic controller staffing, which has been a bipartisan priority in both chambers.

It’s not clear when the Senate will proceed with FAA reauthorization, although committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has said she hopes newly confirmed FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker can help lawmakers move the bill forward. Funding authority for the FAA will expire on Jan. 1.

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