What the airline industry wants from Washington it often gets, and no wonder. The people who regulate airlines on one day can become company executives the next — and the other way around.
Industry leaders who were once under the Federal Aviation Administration's authority now sit in top positions at the agency. Many former FAA officials and congressional aides have found lucrative jobs in the air travel industry or with its lobbying groups. One top official left the FAA two years ago to become the airline industry's top lobbyist.
Throw in millions of dollars in campaign and lobbying money, and factor in the airlines' importance to lawmakers' home cities and states, and it adds up to a powerful industry that even some of the nation's most frequent fliers — members of Congress — can be reluctant to tackle. Broad deregulation and multibillion-dollar government bailouts are among the industry's major victories in recent decades.
The cozy relationship with the government is under fresh scrutiny after two federal safety inspectors accused senior FAA officials of ignoring maintenance and inspection problems at Southwest Airlines, which is now facing a record $10.2 million fine. American Airlines last week canceled flights affecting 250,000 travelers to make safety checks, and Alaska Airlines and Midwest Airlines also grounded planes for inspections.
"The culture of the FAA has swung toward one that views the airlines as a customer and treats them as such," said Tom Brantley, head of the union that represents FAA inspectors. "The safety aspect, the oversight, has taken a back seat."
The FAA says that it hires experienced people who understand how airlines operate, and that its ethics rules prohibit officials in many cases from regulating their former employers.
Stung by the FAA inspectors' claims, Congress is promising air safety crackdowns.
A Senate Appropriations transportation panel is investigating, among other items, the revolving door between the FAA and the airline industry.
Just months ago, some of these same airlines, including Southwest, were drawing praise from Congress.
"On my many flights on Southwest Airlines, I am always struck by the friendly, good-natured flight attendants, agents and pilots that make up the employees of this airline," Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said in a May 2007 House speech.
Airlines have had few problems finding lawmakers to compliment them or help them. This year's presidential candidates are no exception, according to correspondence from the candidates, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
Within weeks of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Sen. John McCain wrote to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta urging him not to let his agency's focus on airline security distract it from a review of a proposed business deal between American Airlines and British Airways. Though an obscure issue for most Americans, international routes are the subject of fierce competition among airlines.
At the time, McCain was the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which handles airline issues. Mineta assured McCain he wouldn't rush a decision.
Sen. Barack Obama, then an Illinois state lawmaker, pressed Mineta to approve United Airlines' application for a $1.8 billion federal loan guarantee, writing that the economic health of Illinois was "inextricably linked with United Airlines' financial condition."
"Since September 11, United has taken bold measures to try to minimize the financial fallout. However, United needs a federal loan to help it overcome the aftermath of September 11," Obama wrote in the summer of 2002.
Despite pressure from Obama and other Illinois lawmakers, the government turned down that and other loan applications from United, rejections that forced it to go through bankruptcy proceedings to cover its debts.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Mineta in 2006 to consider JetBlue Airways' application for permission to offer flights from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Cancun in Mexico.
"In an era of rising prices, JetBlue's low-cost fares have improved our economy in key parts of New York," wrote Clinton, D-N.Y. "JetBlue hopes to offer low fare connecting service to Cancun from these important parts of New York, and I am hopeful that their plans for expanding service will produce positive economic and other benefits to New York and our nation."
JetBlue got the route.
Volunteer fundraisers in the McCain and Clinton presidential campaigns have worked as airline lobbyists. President Bush had at least one airline lobbyist among his fundraisers, and airline lobbyists served on his transportation advisory team as he put his first administration together.
Former air travel industry executives hold front-row seats at the FAA:
- Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the nation's air traffic control system, is a former United Airlines vice president and was a committee member for the chief airline lobby group, the Air Transport Association, until he came to the FAA last fall.
- The assistant administrator in charge of government and industry affairs, Megan Rae Rosia, came to FAA after 12 years charting legislative policy as Northwest Airlines' government affairs director. The assistant administrator who coordinates strategic planning and works on FAA's budget with Congress, Daniel Elwell, was an American Airlines lobbyist and oversaw its international business.
- The FAA's acting administrator, Robert Sturgell, advised the National Transportation Safety Board before coming to FAA and had been a United Airlines pilot and flight operations supervisor.
- The FAA's top lawyer, Kerry B. Long, came from a law firm that had represented a Boeing subsidiary and two aviation companies: Mesa Air Group Inc., which operates a fleet of 184 commercial jets, and Pegasus Aviation Inc., which leases commercial jets. He recused himself from actions involving those former clients for one year.
- Moving from government to industry, Russell Chew served four years as the FAA's chief operating officer, after 17 years with American Airlines, then left government for a top position with JetBlue Airways.
- Delta Airlines' lobbyist roster over the past year includes former Sens. John Breaux and Trent Lott, at least 17 former congressional aides and at least four former Bush administration staffers.
- Former FAA Assistant Administrator Sharon Pinkerton oversaw FAA policy and planning, then went directly to the airlines' main lobbying group, the Air Transport Association of America. White House records show Pinkerton meeting with President Bush's budget team on behalf of the FAA in 2005, then returning two years later as an airline lobbyist.
- One of Washington's top lobbyists, Linda Daschle, wife of former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, is a former ATA executive who became the FAA's deputy administrator and then acting administrator in the 1990s before leaving to represent aviation interests. Last year her team was paid at least $440,000 to lobby for American Airlines.
The FAA says ethics rules prevent conflicts, but it plans to expand restrictions on safety inspectors who quit to take jobs with airlines. Former FAA employees who earned more than $148,000 there already are barred from contacting the FAA on behalf of new employers for a year. All former FAA employees are banned for two years from contacting the agency about subjects they worked on during their final year with the government.
The FAA plans to extend the ban for safety inspectors so they can't work on inspection issues for the first two years at a new job, spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
Still, lawmakers' personal stake in the airlines as consumers can have unpredictable consequences.
Then-Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who supported airline deregulation, once suggested re-regulating the industry after a frustrating trip from Detroit to Washington that took 22 hours and two airlines to complete.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., expected to lose a vote to outlaw smoking on airplanes. But Durbin's colleagues in Congress, he said, proved unexpectedly sympathetic: "We spend more time on airplanes than most people."