Why airlines are happy settling for stability after high hopes at start of Trump administration

by Conor Shine and Tom Benning

Dallas News: Oct 8, 2018

On Feb. 9, 2017, CEOs from the country’s largest airlines met with President Donald Trump at the White House, optimistic about advancing several of their priorities — from air traffic control reform to cracking down on unfair foreign competition — under the new administration.

Twenty months later, with Congress putting the finishing touches last week on a sweeping aviation policy and spending bill, airlines’ lofty aspirations have largely been grounded.

The bipartisan five-year bill’s defining feature is the stability and consistency it will provide to the aviation industry after years of repeated short-term extensions that accomplished little beyond keeping the lights on at the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration.

“This provides five years of stable funding and the ability for the administration to really invest in its programs without concern about the next reauthorization bill,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation. “In terms of policy, there are a few changes, but nothing super-dramatic.”

The result is a muted victory, one that stands in contrast to the major wins scored by the oil and gas business, the telecom sector and other industries amid a deregulatory gusher opened by Trump.

While the legislation failed to advance the airline industry’s long-held goal of spinning off the country’s air traffic control system from the FAA into a private, nonprofit corporation, several other provisions loathed by airline executives didn’t make it into the final bill.

Those included a call to regulate fees for things like checked bags and seat assignments, as well as a push to increase the cap on airport fees used to fund construction. In their place are a number of smaller changes, covering issues from pets to cellphone calls to airplane seat sizes.

It’s not the dramatic action that, just last year, seemed to have the political winds at its back.

“I’m disappointed that with a Republican Congress and a Republican administration, we didn’t make better progress with the FAA reform,” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said recently, referring to the air traffic control privatization push.

Carriers haven’t come up totally empty-handed in the Trump era, as they have joined other businesses in enjoying steep tax cuts passed last year.

Airlines have also praised the Trump administration for brokering an agreement calling for more transparency from three Middle Eastern carriers that some U.S. airlines have said receive unfair subsidies from their home countries. But even that success has been limited in scope, with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker suggesting last month that one of the carriers was already “cheating” on the non-binding agreement.

Airlines in D.C.

Mere passage of an FAA reauthorization bill, which was signed into law by Trump on Friday, is also no small achievement.

The legislation has drawn broad support from across the aviation industry, including commercial airlines, their employees, general aviation operators and safety groups. Even consumer watchdogs found things to like in the final package, despite their calls for further passenger protections.

The new rules prohibit putting pets in overhead bins, ban cellphone calls in the cabin and prod the FAA to set minimum sizes for seats. The bill also touches on broader aviation issues, including continued work on integrating unmanned drones into the national airspace.

Five key elements of the FAA bill

  1. It orders the FAA to establish minimum airplane seat sizes.
  2. It prods the feds to create “reasonable” rules to ensure fliers aren’t improperly classifying their pets as “service animals.”
  3. It prevents airlines from bumping already-boarded passengers to accommodate other fliers.
  4. It ensures that flight attendants get at least 10 hours of rest between their shifts.
  5. It makes it illegal to put an animal in a plane’s overhead bin.

Source: House Transportation Committee.

The bill’s overall shape shows the aviation sector is a serious player in Washington. It’s spent more than $46 million on lobbying and nearly $7 million on political action committee donations to candidates so far this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But the months spent playing defense against various proposals to re-regulate aspects of the industry, and the fact that their top priority of air traffic control reform failed to get a floor vote  in the House or Senate, highlight the challenges airlines and their lobbyists face on Capitol Hill.

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