Airline lobbying takes off amid debates over privatization, passenger rights

Airline lobbying takes off amid debates over privatization, passenger rights
© Getty

Airline lobbying has soared amid a heated congressional debate over whether an aviation bill should include new passenger rights or privatize air traffic control.

Airlines for America (A4A), the trade group representing most of the nation’s major airlines, spent more than $2 million on federal lobbying during April, May and June, according to disclosure forms filed this month.

That figure is a nearly 19 percent increase from the first three months of the year and a 6 percent increase from the same period last year.

The lobbying push came while a video went viral on social media showing a 69-year-old passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat to make room for airline personnel.

ADVERTISEMENT

The incident sparked international outrage and put a new spotlight on passenger rights, prompting a wave of congressional hearings and bills targeting the airline industry’s customer service practices. It also sent lobbying and public relations firms into crisis mode.

Two months after the incident, the House and Senate unveiled legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with both bills containing a slew of new consumer protections.

A4A, which represents United, listed the FAA reauthorization as one of the issues it lobbied on in the second quarter.

One proposed change in both bills would prohibit airlines from involuntarily removing customers from a flight after they have already boarded the plane.

Airlines may be able to swallow the policy, which is far less severe than other proposals that have been floated. And companies have not aggressively pushed back against the idea in public, likely realizing that the negative attention from the United incident has cast the die on the issue.  

But there were broader consumer protections, particularly in the Senate FAA bill, that A4A has come out against. One provision would prohibit airlines from imposing baggage or cancellation fees that the Transportation Department deems “unreasonable” or disproportionate to the actual costs incurred by air carriers.

“The price of airfare today is at a historic low when adjusted for inflation,” A4A said in a statement. “This provision is not warranted and would harm the flying public, leading to increased costs and reduced accessibility.”

Airlines have generally been able to count on congressional Republicans to have their back, as GOP lawmakers have long been reluctant to over-regulate the industry.

But the successful addition of new consumer protections to both FAA bills, though not yet law, suggests that the political calculus is changing in the wake of the United incident.

Another issue that A4A lobbied on during April, May and June is “air traffic control reform.”

The House FAA bill includes a proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government, which has long been a top priority for the airline industry.

A similar effort failed last year, but supporters of the idea gained new momentum this year after receiving the endorsement of President Trump.

However, supporters of the plan have so far been unable to whip up enough support to bring the measure to a floor vote. House lawmakers left for the August recess without considering the proposal.