K Street veteran Calio is not on autopilot

Nick Calio has lobbied on some of Washington’s most consequential legislation.

In D.C. for more than 30 years, Calio — a veteran K Streeter who also led the White House legislative affairs shop for both Presidents Bush — has lobbied for both Iraq War resolutions, the 1986 tax reform bill and the George W. Bush tax cuts. He even lobbied for Wall Street’s multibillion-dollar bailout.

Calio’s experience is now coming to the fore for Airlines for America (A4A), the leading airlines’ trade association. The Cleveland native, as president and CEO of A4A since January 2011, has sought to revamp the business group, making it an aggressive, unified voice for the industry in the nation’s capital.


Calio, 60, has strived to build consensus among the group’s hypercompetitive members, which include American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways. 

“As a head of a trade association, it’s finding consensus among your members. Probably more importantly, it’s providing leadership to your members and creating a strategy around which they can unite so you can find consensus,” Calio said. “If you look at the history of the industry, the lack of unity and effort on Capitol Hill and with the regulators put the industry in a position of harm.”

The prominent Republican lobbyist said he was fascinated by politics and Washington from a young age. Calio noted with a hearty laugh that he volunteered on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

“Northeastern Ohio, an Italian immigrant family, pretty much everybody was a Democrat,” said Calio, adding his parents were leading the way out of the Democratic Party. “1972 was just a different time, it’s the best way I can describe it. A very different time.”

By 1980, he was “licking stamps” as a volunteer for George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign.

Coming to Washington as an attorney after graduating from Case Western Reserve University Law School, Calio soon fell into lobbying, taking a job with the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW).

Dirk Van Dongen, NAW’s president, worked the 1986 tax reform bill with Calio.

“He not only likes to win, but is determined to win,” Van Dongen said about Calio. “He has the ability to put together the strategy and the team to execute his goals.” 

Calio would later join the first Bush White House and eventually lead its legislative affairs office. After the older Bush’s reelection loss, Calio co-founded O’Brien Calio, now known as the OB-C Group, with Larry O’Brien, a high-profile Democratic lobbyist and fundraiser.

“He mixed a very keen sense of humor with a strong work ethic and deadly serious dedication to our lobbying business,” said O’Brien, noting Calio was “central to [the firm’s] early success.”

Calio would head back to the White House under President George W. Bush before signing up with Citigroup to lead its global government affairs team. He helped the bank during the 2008 economic crisis before coming to the airline trade association.

Calio has been tasked with transforming the business group.

First, the group’s name changed from the Air Transport Association to Airlines for America.

There has also been a churn and growth in A4A’s staff, growing from 66 employees since Calio first joined to 75. Calio created a new lobbying team — including bringing on Christine Burgeson and Sean Kennedy, two former White House lobbyists. Its advocacy spending has grown, from almost $4.5 million in 2010 to nearly $6.4 million last year, according to lobbying disclosure records.

The group’s political action committee has also been more active, raising more than $180,000 for the 2012 campaign.

In addition, A4A’s revenue grew to more than $32 million in 2011 — Calio’s first full year in charge — according to the group’s annual tax filing.

The new, lean machine that Calio has put in place was evident when Capitol Hill confronted the budget sequester, slicing $85 billion out of the federal budget this year.

Calio said A4A first worked behind the scenes, as the airlines labored to convince the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the budget cuts didn’t mean the agency had to furlough air traffic controllers, which could cause hours-long travel delays. But once the FAA shared its plans to furlough the controllers, A4A put its prepared campaign into action.

“At that point, everything we put in place, we activated,” Calio said.

Calio and A4A helped coordinate a business-labor coalition, set up a website to collect customers’ complaints, filed a lawsuit against the FAA, and encouraged their member airlines to tell passengers when their flights were delayed or canceled because of the sequester.

In addition, A4A lobbyists had been in touch with lawmakers about problems arising from the budget cuts. Soon enough, Congress would pass legislation to give the FAA more spending flexibility and bring the controllers back to work.

“What happened on the Hill didn’t happen magically,” Calio said. “We had people ready, able and willing to try to be helpful as soon as it started.”

At A4A, Calio has also defended the airline industry from new taxes and fees, including pushing for legislation that shielded airlines from a European Union proposal to have them pay carbon emission fees. The lobbyist said too often the airlines have been seen as “a piggy bank” for policymakers.

“So far, we have been able, by educating members about why it’s not in their constituents’ interest for this to happen, to ward those [new taxes and fees] off and hopefully we will be successful in the future,” Calio said.

Calio said he is having fun heading up A4A. Having run the White House’s legislative affairs office for the past two GOP presidents, Calio said he doesn’t plan to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. if a Republican wins in 2016.

“I think I am the only person who has held that job twice. I will not be the first person to take it three times,” Calio said. “By the time the next selection rolls around, I will be getting up there in years.”