Friday, September 16, 2016

Airlines Want Privatized Air Traffic Control but Delta Remains Opposed

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker 

The U.S. airline industry reiterated its strong support earlier this week for its principal Washington cause: privatizing the nation's aging, inefficient, air traffic control system and removing it from the Congressional budgeting process.

"We need to get ATC reform done," said American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, speaking at industry lobbying group Airlines for America's annual summit. "There is no way we're giving up the fight for sensible reform."

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly declared that "the {industry's} No. 1 issue is the air traffic control system," and several other airline CEOs voiced their agreement.

Yet despite all the unity, the effort seems challenged, with little apparent change since ATC reform was left out of the Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill that Congress approved in July.

Delta, the world's second-largest airline, remains opposed to privatization. The A4A doesn't seem positioned to win hearts and minds in Washington, despite spending millions on airline image advertising and $3.8 million on hard-charging Republican CEO Nick Calio's annual salary.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Democrats including Rep. Peter DeFazio, ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee, oppose an ATC spinoff.

It probably isn't a stretch to suggest that Calio's tenure as CEO is going to be judged primarily by whether ATC is privatized on his watch.

The biggest piece of A4A's strategy has been to rely on the close relationship between Calio and Rep. Bill Shuster, (R-Pennsylvania), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the primary congressional backer of an ATC spinoff.

The relationship comes with image problems, largely because Shelly Rubino, an A4A vice president and lobbyist, is Shuster's girlfriend, a well-known subject of Washington chatter, which is not diminished by a publicly stated agreement that Rubino will not lobby Shuster.

In February, Politico posted a story, "Shuster lounges poolside with airline lobbyists as he pursues FAA bill." A subhead read: "It's the latest example of the transportation committee chairman's coziness with the airline industry."

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