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Airlines lobby passengers for help

Major airlines are asking passengers for help convincing Congress that private aircraft owners should pay more to modernize an outdated air traffic control system.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Major airlines are asking passengers for help convincing Congress that private aircraft owners should pay more to modernize an outdated air traffic control system.

U.S. carriers are drumming up customer support through e-mails, airline magazine commentaries and in-flight videos, blaming a surge in corporate jet and small plane traffic for delays that are at record levels.

Delta Air Lines Inc. sent an e-mail to its frequent fliers this month, asking them to write their congressional representatives and request corporate jet owners ante up for a new air-traffic control system.

The airline plans to start showing a short animated video on most flights Sept. 1, blaming air congestion on increased flying by corporate jets and small planes. The video also suggests operators and owners of those aircraft aren’t paying their fair share for a new air-traffic control system.

“I hate to say it but they’re liars,” says Phil Boyer, head of a trade group that represents general aviation.

The 413,000 members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA, dispute airline claims that general aviation planes clutter the skies.

The group, which represents two-thirds of U.S. nonmilitary pilots, says bad weather and carrier flight overbooking are the main causes for delays.

Boyer says the commercial airlines are spreading propaganda and looking for tax breaks.

The airline industry argues that it pays 95 percent of taxes that fund air-traffic control systems, but accounts for 75 percent of operating costs. The industry favors a Federal Aviation Administration proposal and Senate bill that would shift more of the financial burden to owners and operators of small planes and corporate jets.

General aviation reps, like Boyer, say that while they’re willing to pay more, existing proposals are unreasonable and would harm businesses, especially in smaller communities. They support a House bill that raises some fuel taxes.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to reauthorize the FAA and possibly raise taxes and fees to pay for upgrades to the radar-based traffic control system and other aviation programs.

A satellite-based traffic control system, which the FAA says could handle up to three times current air traffic levels, could cost between $15 billion to $22 billion and take nearly 20 years to build, according to preliminary estimates.

Later this month, the FAA plans to award the first piece of this multi-phase project, a roughly $2 billion contract, to either Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. or ITT Corp.

Both sides have engaged in fierce, multimillion-dollar congressional lobbying the past year and expect to intensify efforts when lawmakers return from summer recess.

The Air Transport Association of America, or ATA, the airlines’ main industry group, has spent more than $2.6 million in the first six months of 2007 to lobby the government on numerous aviation-related issues, including the FAA reauthorization.

The AOPA has shelled out more than $3.3 million in the same time period, according to federal disclosure forms.

If the groups continue at current levels, they’ll easily best what they spent in 2006: $3.1 million for the ATA and $5.9 million for the AOPA.

Meanwhile, Delta said its Aug. 1 e-mail to frequent fliers generated 19,000 form e-mails to their congressional representatives in support of the airline’s objectives.

“We think it’s important to educate and engage them,” Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said. Other carriers agree, saying the effort complements the industry’s federal lobbying.

Representatives from U.S. Airways Groups Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines said they haven’t sent e-mails to customers or shown inflight videos, but they have published commentaries in their in-flight magazines about the issue.

The ATA produces the videos shown on Delta as part of a national campaign, which has including airing them on CNN’s Airport Network at Washington, D.C. airports.

Not to be outdone, the general aviation industry has published magazine commentaries and developed television commercials that appear on CNN’s Airport Network.

Boyer said the airlines want to create a grassroots campaign by engaging customers on the issue, noting that some commercial pilots have even mentioned it over public announcement systems during flights.

However, the efforts may backfire among frustrated airline customers, especially AOPA members.

One member tore up his frequent-flier membership card and sent the pieces to Delta after hearing of the campaign, vowing never to fly the airline again, Boyer added.