Airlines…..Unplugged

I had the opportunity last week to attend the U.S. Chamber’s annual Aviation Summit. “Aviation” in the title is really a misnomer. Despite the fact the Chamber has member companies with corporate flight departments, and even a wide array of other aviation businesses, make no mistake about it — this was an airline conference. The summit’s lack of balance was startling; this was a vehicle for airlines to get their message out and other viewpoints need not apply. Comfortable in what was clearly an enabling setting, airline executives felt empowered to say what they really think.

The leaders of the so-called low cost carriers were in lockstep about the dangers posed by four airlines with 80-percent domestic market share. Through their dialogue, they invited us to peak behind the curtain for a look at the impact of global joint ventures, noting for example three mega-alliances controlling 87 percent of the transatlantic market. They called upon the Department of Transportation to revisit these anti-trust waivers and immunized joint ventures…..and in the next breath they called upon Congress to adopt the Shuster proposal to create an airline dominated air traffic control corporation.

This is a demonstration of the old political adage, “where you are is where you sit.” Market concentration, it appears, is dangerous….unless of course you are part of it. This inability to either see or understand other perspectives is disappointing from people who are seemingly aware of the dangers created by market concentration. Even if we all saw creating an air traffic control corporation as a good idea, which we don’t, why would aviation businesses willingly sign up for a proposal that leaves their future costs to be determined by airlines?

However, the low cost carriers were just the warmup act, next came the airline association and a representative CEO from the big carriers. These speeches were carefully orchestrated and honed to two messages. First, congressional policymakers who offer pro-consumer proposals related to airline seats or pricing of various airline fees are intent on nothing less than re-regulating the airline industry. The airlines’ view of consumer legislation was best summarized by the head of their trade association who told the crowd, “Members of Congress, with all due respect, if you want to run an airline, buy some planes, hire some employees and sell some tickets.” Well, to paraphrase Ricky Bobby, he did say, “with all due respect.”

The wrath of these airline leaders was especially reserved for those who dare oppose their plan to create an air traffic control corporation. Those in opposition to the corporation are nothing more than “entrenched interests fighting to maintain their advantage.” Their response to the bipartisan work of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson that did not include a proposal to corporatize air traffic control, “The Senate took the easy way out.”

Worse are the half-statements that come along with addresses of these sort. For example, we were told airlines believe in a user fee-funded corporation so much they are willing to write their own checks to the corporation for the air traffic services they use. How altruistic. Except of course the real cost will be borne by the customer and the corporation proposal neatly removes accountability for those costs from a consumer’s direct scrutiny — let alone the costs the airlines will attempt to shift to general aviation. Other whoppers rehashed in front of a largely adoring crowd included the suggestion that air traffic controllers are using 1950’s technology, or that 60 countries currently operating corporatized systems are in some way more efficient or safer than ours.

Airlines also tried to dispel the notion they don’t want to run the corporation by noting the composition of the air traffic control board was changed late in the House committee process with the addition of two more seats for general aviation, bringing GA to the same number of seats as the airlines. While no doubt equal in number, it’s arguable those seats are not equal in weight. The corporation CEO, who also holds a board vote, will undoubtedly feel the pressure of the four votes that represent the overwhelming amount of corporation funding. In addition, this is not a proposal that is yet set in stone.   Neatly forgotten by these airline leaders during the conference, their complaint to Congress that the original proposal already lacked a sufficient number of airline stakeholders, particularly given the representation from general aviation — stakeholders that in their view pay next to nothing. We should not expect the airlines to give up on their attempts to “perfect” the board’s composition.

I report all this to remind you that despite some press reports, the airline industry is not giving up. Between now and July 15th (when the current FAA reauthorization again expires) we must be vigilant and engaged with our elected lawmakers if we are to withstand the imposition of the airline worldview on consumers and general aviation.

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs

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