Airline-Backed ‘Grassroots’ Groups Roll out Populist Message to Support FAA Overhaul
September 15, 2017
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    By Lauren Gardner

    Two groups backed by the airline industry are adopting a populist tone as they advocate for a controversial overhaul of the nation’s air traffic control system — by bashing the “private jet owners” and “big corporate interests” that stand in the way.

    The messaging from the groups, Citizens for On Time Flights and Flyers for Fairness, comes after months of congressional resistance to an industry-backed proposal to split up the FAA and place air traffic control in the hands of a newly formed nonprofit. The effort in Congress has faltered so far, though House GOP leaders insisted this week that the bill, H.R. 2997 (115), will be moving in October.

    Supporters have yet to succeed with their main argument — endorsed by President Donald Trump in June — that the change would yield faster, cheaper, more efficient air travel, and the clock is ticking before Congress has to extend the FAA’s authorization by Sept. 30. The newest rhetorical front appears to target one of their most politically potent opponents: business and private aviation groups that contend the proposal would give the major airlines a stranglehold over the skies.

    Citizens for On Time Flights has repeatedly dinged the National Business Aviation Association on Facebook, writing in an Aug. 1 post that the business group’s stance “has nothing to do with protecting the interests of the flying public and everything to do with preserving the status quo for private jet owners.” It linked to a Newsweek op-ed titled “Why are private jets being subsidized by you and me?”

    In its inaugural tweet on Aug. 25, Flyers for Fairness said the business aviation group “wants an air traffic control system that’s rigged in favor of big corporate interests.” Flyers for Fairness contends that small planes use more resources from the national aviation system than they pay in fuel taxes.

    Citizens for On Time Flights has also chastised “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who is siding with business-aviation and plane-owner groups against the overhaul.

    “It’s a bit rich for Sully to claim airline customers should be opposed to air traffic control reform when the primary beneficiaries of the failing status quo are the corporate jet set,” Citizens said in an Aug. 21 comment on Facebook.

    The rhetorical shift is essentially an acknowledgment that the airlines’ previous arguments haven’t worked, contended Jim Coon, senior vice president of government affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which also opposes the overhaul.

    “These airline front groups have tried everything to convince folks that handing over our air traffic control system to special interests and folks who want to make your airline seat smaller is a good idea,” Coon said. “They’ve suggested that these reforms would decrease airline delays, but the reality is that 80 percent of delays are caused by the airlines and significant weather events.”

    Citizens for On Time Flights, which launched its social media presence on May 25, is “facilitated by” Airlines for America, according to the group’s website, and is designed as a grassroots group with chapters in nine states. Flyers for Fairness registered for its website domain on Aug. 23.

    Airlines for America acknowledged that it has provided “resources” to both groups and is working with several other organizations — including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Eno Center for Transportation and the Global Business Travel Association — “to support the more than 100,000 travelers involved in Citizens for On-Time Flights movement,” A4A spokesman Vaughn Jennings said.

    Jennings said A4A has “provided resources to help Citizens for On Time Flights get off the ground and our support is ongoing.” As for the Flyers group, Jennings said A4A has “given it some resources,” but called it an “independent effort.”

    The crux of Citizens’ and Flyers’ argument is one that the airlines made a decade ago, the last time Congress considered a major change to the way air traffic control is done — that private jet owners aren’t paying as much into the system as airline passengers. But this time, A4A hasn’t made that argument itself.

    Citizens for On Time Flights, which was formed in May, initially advanced the argument that a nonprofit-run air traffic control system would be more efficient than the FAA. By July, the group’s Twitter account was interacting with travelers beset by flight delays, encouraging them to write to lawmakers and ask them to “support legislation that establishes an independent entity to handle air traffic control” — a reference to House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster’s FAA bill.

    But by the time the House left for the August recess without having passed Shuster’s bill, the organization had pivoted to drawing attention to private and business jets.

    “NBAA needs to put aside the interests of corporate jet owners and support a proposal that will benefit the rest of the country — which flies coach,” read a July 31 Facebook post, which also linked to the Newsweek op-ed.

    Flyers for Fairness spokesman Alan Clendenin, a former air traffic controller, said the group is focused on “promoting air traffic control reform and exposing efforts by corporate/private jet owners” to block efforts to overhaul the system.

    “I know you had questions about funding, etc. This is an informal group that’s gotten some support, but I’m not going to get into details,” he said in an email.

    Steve Billet, the director of George Washington University’s legislative affairs program and a former AT&T executive, said the two new groups serve as a “diversionary tactic,” giving the airlines and other proponents of the air traffic control overhaul cover when making certain arguments.

    “Let’s face it — these guys have an image issue,” he said of the airline industry.

    The “fat cat business jets” talking point figured prominently in a former campaign by A4A — then called the Air Transport Association — attempting to shift the aviation system away from being funded by fuel and excise taxes, and instead to a system of fees based on actual use of the national airspace. In 2007, ATA had a series of ads featuring a beehive-adorned flier named Edna expressing her frustration at business jets paying less than passenger-toting planes for the same air navigation services, and ran ads in airports showing small business jets cutting in line on the tarmac ahead of packed passenger planes.

    Cara McCormick, Citizens for On Time Flights’ national spokeswoman, said that “the corporate jet lobby shouldn’t be standing in the way of this reform,” but added that isn’t the primary message her group wants to convey to travelers.

    “The main message is that we deserve a better system, that we deserve a modernized system,” she told POLITICO. “Who isn’t for on-time flights?”

    The group has taken out newspaper and radio ads — the latter of which McCormick said are “limited engagement” and target markets in places like Missouri, Oklahoma and Florida. It’s also using geo-fencing to target digital ads toward airport users in a dozen states on their laptops, tablets or phones, she said.

    McCormick declined to say how much the organization is spending on those efforts.

    NBAA spokesman Dan Hubbard didn’t directly respond to the groups’ recent rhetoric against his business aviation association. But he blasted “baseless attacks from airline-fronted, so-called consumer groups” against Sullenberger, who he said is publicizing “a reality that anyone who has flown recently already knows: [t]he airlines consistently put profits above people and communities, and should not be in charge of air traffic control.”

    For his part, Sullenberger said his advocacy on the issue is pro bono and focused on “all the traveling public.”

    “Keeping [air traffic control] as a national public asset will benefit every user, from the pilot of the smallest private plane to a passenger on the largest airliner, and everyone in between,” he said.

    Supporters of the FAA overhaul largely steered clear of bashing corporate fat cats when Congress began debating Shuster’s bill in 2016. Instead, A4A and its allies said the shift would free air traffic control from the unpredictability of Congress’ annual appropriations process, giving the new nonprofit the freedom to make long-term investment decisions without worrying about the whims of government.

    They’ve also argued that the nonprofit corporation would be better suited than the FAA to finish the agency’s lagging, costly effort to transition away from traditional radar to a satellite-based navigation system, which would allow more planes to share the skies at the same time.

    Trump has repeatedly advanced those arguments himself, using a White House speech in June to describe the FAA-run air traffic control system as “an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.”

    Shuster’s legislation to remove air traffic control from FAA’s portfolio would exempt all segments of general aviation from having to pay any new user fees to fly. Instead, they would continue to pay through the current regime of fuel taxes. Opponents from the general aviation community have not been mollified by the carve-out, contending that it would just be a matter of time before that changes under a nonprofit that doesn’t have to answer to Congress.

    “The fact that no one is asking general aviation to pay anything underscores just how disingenuous the private jet lobby has become,” said Jennings, the A4A spokesman.

    “Now is the time for Congress to take a stand and put the interests of the 2.2 million passengers who fly commercially every day ahead of the elite few who own private jets,” he added.

    Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report.

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