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US lawmakers’ narrow, parochial view of aviation


American Airlines chairman, president and CEO Tom Horton and US Airways chairman and CEO Doug Parker testified Tuesday before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on the two carriers’ pending merger. The questions they were asked by senators were in many ways more telling than any of the CEOs’ answers.

Here were the two men primarily responsible for negotiating a merger that will create the world’s largest airline. Senators could ask them anything in a setting in which honest, on-the-record answers are expected and demanded.

They could have grilled Horton over the Chapter 11 process or asked pointed questions of Parker (the tapped CEO of the “new American”) on US airlines’ competitive place in the world or about his public criticisms of US tax policy toward airlines. While there were some broad, boiler-plate questions about whether the merger would reduce competition in the US airline market, what did senator after senator want to know? How will the merger affect my state?

So Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) demanded to know how committed American will be to continuing to serve New York airports. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pushed for more service at smaller Iowa airports. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) wanted to know whether US Airways no longer having its headquarters in Phoenix (the new American will be Dallas/Fort Worth based) will hurt employment and air service in Arizona.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) was curious about service to airports in the Nutmeg State.  And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was eager to tell Parker how happy he was to see him moving to Dallas. During Cruz’s questioning, Horton chimed in: “I can confirm Doug does own cowboy boots. I’ve seen him wear them.”

Anyone attending the hearing or watching the live webcast hoping for a thoughtful discussion of the broader implications of the merger, US airline industry consolidation, antitrust-immunized global alliances or how the federal government regulates airlines would have been disappointed. But I think the hearing was instructive: It plainly revealed lawmakers’ main interest when it comes to commercial aviation—a global industry integral to the ebb and flow of the American and world economies—is decidedly parochial.

A number of the senators who were at the hearing are fairly prominent figures, often appearing on television to discuss a wide range of national and international issues. But when it comes to aviation, they seemed overwhelmingly interested in one thing: Getting Parker on record stating that he doesn’t intend to pull flights out of specific airports in their state. Or telling Parker publicly that American should be flying to specific airports in their state.

Next time FAA reauthorization comes up and stalls in Congress, or someone wonders why US airline ownership rules are so needlessly restrictive, or why any of the recent mergers has received so little scrutiny in Washington, or why US air traffic control modernization has moved so slowly, keep this hearing in mind.

Members of Congress don’t really care that much about broader public policy on aviation. They want to know whether the airport in their state or district has what they deem to be a proper level of service (and are occasionally willing to go before the cameras to express outrage over a particular fee an airline charges), but—outside of a few exceptions—that’s about it.

“On Capitol Hill, all politics is still local,” Aerospace Industries Association assistant VP-legislative affairs Richard Efford said earlier this month at the Aviation Forecast and Policy Summit, explaining that members of Congress are mainly interested in individual projects at airports in their state or district. “When you get away from a particular project and talk more globally about NextGen [ATC] and how much we’re getting for what it costs, what I see on Capitol Hill is that members are less interested in the overall topic. They get very interested in the projects in their district.”

This is not surprising or new, but it is dispiriting if you’d like to see more thought put into US aviation policy.

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