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FAA reauthorization lifts airline lobbying totals

Spending by top groups up roughly 30 percent in 2023

Washington National Airport is seen from a departing flight in 2021.
Washington National Airport is seen from a departing flight in 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lobbying outlays by the top seven largest spenders in the airline industry totaled roughly 12 percent more in the fourth quarter of 2023 than the same time a year earlier, as interest peaked around efforts to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

Those seven spent $29.9 million in 2023, a year that brought a post-pandemic surge in flight travel, an air traffic controller shortage and consumer frustration with flight delays, cancellations and fees, according to the latest disclosures. For all of 2023, the top seven spent roughly 30 percent more on lobbying than a year earlier.

United Airlines, which has shown deep interest in opposing an FAA reauthorization bill proposal that would add more flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, led the pack in 2023 lobbying. Although its spending dipped in the fourth quarter, United Airlines ended the year with a total of $9 million — $3 million more than the second highest airline spender, Airlines for America, an industry group.

Delta Air Lines came in third with $5.1 million in total, followed by American Airlines at $4.6 million.

Congressional action crested last summer, as the House passed its FAA reauthorization bill but the Senate’s bill became snagged over an amendment that would make changes to pilot training requirements.

That’s also when United Airlines reported the most spending: roughly $3.8 million in the second quarter and $2.9 million in the third. Airlines for America reported its peak in the third quarter with $1.5 million. Spending by others, such as Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines, followed a similar trend.

Congress deferred action on reauthorization until this year, but negotiations on that and other bills throughout the fourth quarter drove private sector interest. Airlines were an anomaly, however, as lobbying spending overall dipped in 2023.

But firms report they expect to be busy going forward.

Loren Monroe, a principal at lobbying firm BGR Group, said some people might dismiss the dip in spending as a lull, “but the truth was our policy team was as busy as ever. And I don’t see that changing in the next six months just because there’s so much work to finish, but also in an election year a lot of the work will be front-loaded.”

As is typical for the end of the year, lobbying dollars among top-spending airlines dropped slightly in the final quarter from the previous quarter. But lately, lawmakers have shown renewed interest in oversight of Boeing following an incident where a door plug of a 737 Max 9 blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun met with senators individually last week to discuss questions about the company’s quality control practices, and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement that she intends to hold hearings to investigate the safety lapses.

The impact of that on lobbying outlays remains to be seen.

The committee is still negotiating amendments to its FAA reauthorization bill, which includes resolving sticking points on issues like National Airport flight slots and bids to raise the pilot retirement age. The FAA’s funding authority expires March 8.

Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.