Curtis Tate and Alex Daugherty McClatchy
In the Battle Over Who Controls U.S. Airspace, It’s Big Lobbyists vs. Small Airports
March 6, 2017
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  • Big airlines spent more than $16 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies last year.

    The city of Wichita spent $80,000 and its allies spent some more, but their combined firepower was nowhere near that of the airlines.

    The airlines’ lineup included three former U.S. senators, one of them a former Republican leader. Wichita’s mayor joined other city officials across the country and wrote Congress a letter.

    Yet Wichita and its friends aren’t down and out. This little guy/big guy fight is classic Washington power politics, as the two sides spar over a proposal from the big airlines and their trade groups to remove air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration, where it’s been for decades.

    Small cities and general aviation manufacturing hubs oppose the effort to transfer that responsibility to a private corporation governed largely by the industry.

    The airlines are eager to change the system because they’ll have more control over the nation’s airspace. The Wichitas of America fear they’ll end up paying higher costs in fees for takeoffs and landings – and have less control over a system dominated by major airlines.

    “There’s hundreds of communities that feel the same way we do,” said Victor White, the director of Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport.

    Wichita, the nation’s leading manufacturer of small airplanes, is the largest city whose mayor signed a letter to congressional leaders opposing the plans to change who oversees U.S. airspace.

    “On behalf of the tens of thousands of communities around the country, we are concerned about the very real and dire ramifications of eliminating congressional oversight of this public air transportation infrastructure,” said the letter, dated Monday and signed by Wichita’s Republican mayor, Jeff Longwell, and 117 other mayors nationwide.

    Wichita and some of its aviation manufacturers have lobbyists in Washington, but they’re up against well-paid and well-connected former members of Congress and their staffs. Among the Washington heavyweights pulling for the big airlines: former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and former Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo.

    The commercial carriers that serve Wichita – including American, United and Southwest – paid Washington firms a combined $10 million for lobbying last year to push, in part, for the change in air traffic control. Southwest paid $120,000 to Kit Bond Strategies, the former senator’s firm.

    Airlines for America, an industry trade association, spent another $6.4 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington watchdog group. It paid $350,000 to Squire Patton Boggs, where Lott and Breaux are senior counsel.

    Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the group, said “modernizing our nation’s ATC infrastructure in the sky is every bit as critical to our economy as roads, rail and bridges — thus we are urging Congress to deliver the world-class ATC system that the traveling and shipping public deserves.”

    The city of Wichita, by contrast, paid one lobbyist at the Washington firm of Alcalde & Fay $80,000 to do all its advocacy work last year, including opposition to the plan to place air traffic control in the airline industry’s hands. It did get help from some other interests.

    The system is already safe and efficient, White said.

    The users are saying it’s not broken,” he said. “Let’s not throw it out.”

    The big airlines want to upend the air traffic control system to speed up implementation of NextGen, a long-stalled project to replace 1950s ground-based radar technology with GPS systems capable of moving more planes more closely together through the sky.

    The FAA estimates that it will cost the federal government and the airline industry $35.8 billion to complete the system by 2030. The airlines think their plan can make it happen faster.

    At an aviation conference last week in Washington hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, current and former airline executives talked up a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to change who controls the skies. 

    “It’s sort of like having a gravel highway when you need a highway,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said of the air traffic control system. “You just talk with Boeing and you talk with Airbus, they are building Ferraris. You could never drive a Ferrari on a gravel road.” 

    Bob Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines, said other countries, including Canada, had removed control of their airspace from the government with satisfactory results. 

    “This concept has been adopted by more than 50 other countries in one form or another,” he said. “No country that has made the change has ever sought to change back.” 

    But to Selena Shilad, the executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, an advocacy group for general aviation and local airports, improving air traffic control technology is a shared goal that can be accomplished without changing who runs it. 

    “There’s a lot of ideas on modernization,” she said. “We have concerns about the conflation of modernization with privatization.” 

    Shilad and White reject the comparisons with Canada and other countries. 

    “The amount of air traffic that uses their system is minuscule,” White said. 

    “We’re so much larger and more diverse,” Shilad said. 

    Shilad’s group, which does not employ a lobbying firm, has some notable allies that do, including Textron, a leading manufacturer of general aviation and business aircraft that employs thousands of workers in Wichita. Delta Air Lines is the notable among major air carriers in opposing the privatization proposal. 

    Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, are members of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over aviation policy, and are vocal opponents of the Shuster bill. 

    While the measure never got a floor vote in the House of Representatives or the Senate, it’s likely to resurface. Congress must reauthorize the FAA by Sept. 30. 

    “It’s far from over,” White said. 

    About 88 percent of the airports that are eligible for federal improvement funds do not have scheduled air service. Though Wichita does have commercial service, its economy depends heavily on general aviation. 

    “There’s a real concern here, particularly among small and midsize communities,” Shilad said. “We’re thrilled that Wichita joined.”