Hotel owners march to Capitol Hill as flight delays threaten summer travel

Congress is getting an earful from hoteliers who fear sequester-induced flight delays will ruin the summer tourism season.
 
Nearly 300 members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association planned to visit close to 200 House and Senate offices on Wednesday to personally lobby on the sequester, which has taken a bite out of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding for air traffic controllers.

“This industry has been concerned about this from the beginning, but with some of the recent actions, most notably the new FAA cuts, this industry of course has become even more concerned than they already were," Katherine Lugar, the group’s president and CEO, told The Hill. “We will be working with members on both sides and the administration to try to get the job right.”

Airports across the country began reporting increased delays this week as the FAA began furloughing more than 14,000 air traffic controllers. On Tuesday, airports in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas reported delays they said were related to staffing issues.

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The slowdown in air travel has drawn a heated response from Republicans, who say the Obama administration is deliberately making the sequester cuts as painful as possible to marshal public support for reversing them. The FAA has insisted that the furloughs cannot be avoided because the agency must reduce its budget by $600 million.

Hotels aren’t taking sides in that debate, but are stressing to lawmakers the impact that widespread travel delays would have on the tourism industry.

“What's happened with the furloughed workers at the FAA has a very direct impact on hoteliers and on travel,” Lugar said.
 
The hospitality trade group isn’t pushing specific legislation on sequestration, though Lugar warned the across-the-board cuts could have “a really negative impact” on the economy.
 
“There are a number of different proposals, and we want to remain open to all of them,” Lugar said. “We want a seat at the table and plan to engage in the dialogue.”
 
Members of the hotel group also planned to talk to lawmakers about immigration reform, specifically one provision that was included in the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill: the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act.
 
The measure would speed up visa processing, something the travel industry has long sought.

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“The JOLT Act is really essential to travel and tourism — that international travelers can come to the United States,” Lugar said. “We want to make sure that we are driving and promoting international travel in a safe and efficient way.”
 
The measure is included in the Senate immigration reform bill, but is only a stand-alone bill in the House at the moment. The hotel association said wants to see the JOLT Act passed, one way or another.
 
“We are going to look for any avenue to get it done,” Lugar said.
 
The hotel trade group has been supportive of the Senate’s immigration reform bill. A brochure that members used during their lobby visits reads, “our current immigration system is in dire need of reform.”
 
Lobbyists for the hotel trade group, however, have voiced concerns about the number of visas the Senate bill has allotted for a new low-skilled worker program.
 
Business support will be key to passage of any immigration overhaul. On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke to the hotel trade group’s legislative summit in Washington and urged them to back the Senate immigration reform bill.  
 
Lugar, who was previously with the Retail Industry Leaders Association, is only in her first week as head of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. She said she has met with the group’s board of directors and is working on a new proposal to position the trade group as a more aggressive lobbying force in Washington.
 
Lugar said the “new strategic plan,” likely to be released in June this year, will “make sure that [the group] is really seen as a lobbying and communications powerhouse for this industry.” 
 
“We will be bringing new focus and resources to advocacy, to grassroots,” Lugar said. “When you look at the fact that this industry has 50,000 hoteliers around the country, we want to mobilize them and focus them.”
 
Jordy Yager contributed to this report.