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Posts Tagged ‘congress’

Nothing to see here

Echoing Terry Maxon and Cranky, let me just say that the attempt by members of Congress to limit carry-on bag sizes by statute is a classic example of congressional kibitzing in the private business affairs of private-sector businesses. This is also, however, a bill that will go nowhere. Like many other minor pieces of legislation, it is introduced to make a stand, win the member some plaudits in the district, and die silently because it is not actually an issue worth Congress’s attention.

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The Senate is set to vote on a bill that would “establish a nonprofit corporation to run a nationally coordinated travel promotion program.”

[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid said the corporation “would market the U.S. around the globe as a tourist destination.” Reid told reporters earlier in the week that the bill could create 40,000 new jobs in the U.S. [B.S.--ed.]

Initially the corporation would receive $10 million in federal funding from money collected from travelers under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) system currently being established by the Department of Homeland Secretary. After Fiscal 2010, the corporation would have to raise matching contributions to qualify for additional federal funding.

Radley Balko comments that “this is all because tourism is down, due all the money we’ve spent on post 9-11 efforts to make it more difficult for foreigners to come here.” (Reason piles on, too.) I’m sympathetic to that line of reasoning — want to talk about winning hearts and minds around the world? Then try making it not so much of a hassle to get through our ports of entry. But the numbers just don’t back Balko up. According to a 2008 report (with data up to 2007) from the Department of Commerce, after dropping off sharply post-9/11, foreign tourism began to rebound (not from every country, but a slight upward trend is clear). It wasn’t until after the financial crisis last year that foreign arrivals began to tank year on year, continuing to post steep declines in the first part of this year.

The fact is, regardless of the effectiveness of U.S. border security policies, the downturn in tourism is primarily due to the current economic contraction, not post-9/11 security procedures.

Now, whether it’s helpful for the government to get involved in the tourism marketing business is something else altogether. But I guess with all the work the administration has done to discourage U.S. companies to bring tourist dollars to places like Vegas, it might as well make up the balance by bringing in some foreigners.

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The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today to review several nominations in its purview, including FAA administrator-designate J. Randolph Babbitt and DOT deputy secretary-designate John Porcari. Opening statements are going on now. Babbitt is, as you know, the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association and a pilot at Eastern. According to Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is chairing the hearing at the moment, Babbitt is “the right person to lead the FAA at the moment.” (Wow, tough crowd.) Porcari is Maryland’s secretary of transportation.

Opening statements by Babbitt and Porcari have been posted on the committee’s website.

I’m not on the Hill today, but I am watching the hearing’s live webcast. I’ll bring you aviation-related highlights of the hearing throughout the day, so refresh this post for the latest updates. Stay tuned!

Babbitt

Babbitt

11:43. Interesting item from Babbitt’s testimony: “I have worked with members of Congress on major aviation safety issues, including one of which I am most proud, ‘One Level of Safety.’ I led this project in 1993 while I was president of ALPA. This program resulted in required regional carriers to operate under the same rules and at the same level of safety as their major carrier counterparts.” Of significant relevance given the attention paid to small-lift provider safety standards in the wake of the NTSB’s Colgan Air crash hearings.

11:48. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was principally responsible for torpedoing the confirmation of Robert Sturgell, former president Bush’s FAA nominee. He’s much happier with Babbitt today, about whom, when he slips up and says “if you are confirmed, he adds “if you’re not it will be a miracle.” Lautenberg asks about the New York / New Jersey / Philadelphia airspace redesign. Would Babbitt put a hold on the redesign until frontline air traffic controllers ha had a chance to weigh in? “I’m not exactly certain where that process stands at this time,” Babbitt replies. “On a personal basis, I would really like to solicit input from all the stakeholders in that area. . . . I think it’s very important that [controllers] have input in this process.”

Lautenberg then raises a parochial concern that is more than parochial, given the airport’s role in the system: reported controller shortages at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Can you assure us that the Newark tower will be staffed to the volume of performance we require there?” Babbitt: “It’s my hope that every tower in this country will be staffed and manned to the highest degree.” He refers to the “bubble of controllers being in a similar age, a band of age” who are going to retire soon. (And already are.–ed.)

(more…)

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I’ve done several off-blog items on the subject of international airline alliances lately. Here they are:

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TEMPE — On most policy issues at the national level, airlines work through their trade association, ATA. Yesterday, I asked C. A. Howlett, US Airways senior VP for public affairs, about what issues he works on that the ATA does not get very involved in. “The biggest issue that is US Airways-specific is the Reagan National Airport perimeter rule.” National is one of US Airways’ key focus cities. He said that although the airline favors reducing barriers wherever they exist, “a more practical political solution is to create more exemptions to beyond-perimeter flying.” This would add to the twenty-four (in practice, twelve round-trip) exemptions, which include US Airways’ routes to Phoenix (one of which I am about to take back to Washington).

The key, Howlett said, is to make these changes in the pending FAA reauthorization bill, because the perimeter at National is congressionally mandated. US Airways is also interested in increasing beyond-perimeter exemptions at LaGuardia Airport, where it has a focus city operation. At LaGuardia, however, the perimeter is a locally adopted rule which does not require federal action.

One of the obstacles to perimeter exemptions is the objections of communities within the perimeter that fear losing service to big West Coast markets.  “Our approach would protect small and medium markets within the perimeter,” Howlett said. “We would say that an airline could use up to some percentage of its existing slots to fly beyond the perimeter, provided that those flights were taken from large or medium hubs. . . . What we’re doing is trying to protect the city that has maybe two flights to DCA. . . . We’re building in protections so that communities don’t lose service.” Howlett offered the example of, say, Delta taking one flight out of the Atlanta market, which would not make much of a difference, to add a flight to Salt Lake City. Besides, he said, there is just not that much demand for nonstop travel from National to the West Coast. A few more exemptions should meet that demand. (more…)

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TEMPE — Echoing Doug Parker’s plea for the government to “do no harm” to the airline industry, C. A. Howlett, US Airways’ top government affairs officer, outlined the challenges the industry — and US Airways in particular — face in the policy environment. His primary focus was the pending FAA reauthorization bill. Put off since 2007, the bill has been passed by the House but no action has been taken in the Senate. “We will maybe get this in calendar year 2009 but no one is betting anything heavy on that particular forecast,” he quipped.

Howlett is in no rush to get the House bill passed, because it has several provisions that give US Airways and other airlines pause. The bill increases the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) from $4.50 to $7.00. PFCs are used to fund airport improvements but are levied by airlines when passengers buy tickets. This, Howlett said, would add $2 billion to the airline industry’s costs. “Airports have the ability to raise revenues by raising our landing fees and charges,” he added. “Not all airports are the same. . . . [Raising landing fees is]a better way to finance projects.” Besides, he said, airports got $1.1 billion in the stimulus bill, plus $1 billion for security improvements.

Also of concern in the House’s FAA bill are labor issues regarding collective bargaining procedures, the passenger’s bill of rights provisions, and limitations on foreign repair stations. Howlett said that there is a provision inserted at the behest of the firefighters’ union that would cost US Airways alone $15 million per year at their hubs. (more…)

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It’s pretty common knowledge that the United States has for years underinvested in “infrastructure” — from the power grid to physical plants to transportation — and thus one of the first priorities of the next administration should be to devote massive resources to repairing infrastructure. And I’m sure the commuter inching forward on a Dallas interstate on his way home from work or a passenger on a regional jet at LaGuardia groaning as yet another thirty-minute delay is announced would agree. And Barack Obama has endorsed a massive infrastructure spending program in hopes of stimulating the economy. So then — let’s get busy! Where to start?

As Bob Poole writes in yesterday’s WSJ, the mayors of 427 cities have helpfully identified more than 11,000 “ready-to-go” infrastructure projects worth $73 billion. Okay, there’s a start. And what kind of projects are these? Poole lays out several of them: a “waterfront duck pond park,” community centers, tennis centers, “life style centers,” a “Grand Central Station” in San Francisco for a rail line that doesn’t exist, and the like. (More “infrastructure priorities are listed here.) That is, the mayors have, in a recession and what is widely acknowledged as a crisis in infrastructure, presented the taxpayers with a gold-plated wish list. No doubt Congress would be happy to pony up the money in exchange for naming rights.

Why are these projects even on the list? For several reasons. First, they’re discrete and local. Highway, airport, and major transit projects often require consultation with and the involvement of multiple authorities, making it harder for the spending to have a quick impact — even if its long-term effect would outweigh that of a duck pond by a factor of, oh, infinity. Another reason might be the “spaghetti” approach: throw it at the wall to see if it sticks. No harm in trying, right? ask the mayors. (No harm, indeed, except perhaps the derision of a few lowly bloggers.) (more…)

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Since fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions correlate nearly exactly, U.S. airlines have a financial incentive to improve their environmental performance. According to officials at the Air Transport Association, the national trade group for commercial airlines, environmental performance continues to improve and other initiatives are on deck.

Speaking in a conference call with several aviation bloggers, ATA vice president for environmental affairs Nancy Young identified environmental performance, improving the nation’s air traffic control infrastructure, and energy policy as the airlines’ top policy priorities. The desire for fuel efficiency leads to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, she said: “We couldn’t be more motivated to do the right thing there.” Among these initiatives are alternative, environmentally and food-supply friendly fuels. Young said that it is much harder to develop this kind of fuel for air-based engine units. A 50/50 synthetic blend is currently being tested, she said, with the aim of having 50 percent of the jet fuel supply in alternatives by 2025.

ATA has also adopted an industry-wide goal of improving fuel efficiency by 30 percent by 2025. This can be done, she said, by upgrading fleets, investing in new aircraft (e.g., replacing American Airlines’ MD-80s with B-737s) and enhancing current aircraft (such as fitting them with winglets). John Heimlich, ATA’s chief economist, added that more efficient air traffic control navigation — such as optimal flight paths, continuous descent, and the like — would improve both operational and environmental performance. Heimlich also defended the recent spate of baggage fees as an environmental initative: “When the customer is imposing a fuel penalty on us, as with baggage, we pass that cost on to them.” The airlines are cutting down on fuel use by modifying passenger behavior. (more…)

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Duane Woerth

Duane Woerth

There’s a lot of virtual ink being spilled in the blogosphere about Obama’s shortlist for FAA administrator. Some of those rumored to be under consideration include Representative Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee; Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); Clinton-era FAA chief Jane Garvey;  Robert Herbert, an aide to Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Boeing executive Neil Planzer, and former Air Line Pilots Association president Duane Woerth. Regarding the latter, the Wall Street Journal‘s Middle Seat Terminal blog has this to say:

Woerth . . . has met with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar and has his tentative support, according to people familiar with their discussions. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who heads an aviation subcommittee, is slated to meet with Woerth in the next few days. . . .

Still, the Journal reports that Woerth has the strong backing of various unions seeking to cash in political capital for their aggressive support of Obama’s candidacy. But Woerth, who frequently prodded the agency to step up air-safety efforts, also has garnered bipartisan endorsements on Capitol Hill and enjoys the backing of some aircraft makers and airline-industry officials.

I called a airline pilot friend and ALPA member at one of the nation’s largest airlines to get his impressions. This pilot  thought Woerth did an “OK” job as head of ALPA. My source especially praised Woerth’s handling of the critical time surrounding the September 11 attacks: “He was head of ALPA during 9/11. He had a huge amount dumped on his plate with the tremendous challenges to the industry” — including persuading pilot groups to make wage and benefit concessions in attempts to save their airlines. (more…)

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Top policy advisers to Barack Obama and John McCain differed on key transportation issues at a forum in Washington this morning, but they agreed, in the words of McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, when it comes to transportation, “the ratio of importance to discussion on the campaign trail is high.”

Mortimer Downey

Downey

Mortimer Downey, Obama’s senior transportation adviser and Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of transportation, emphasized Obama’s detailed transportation plan, which I blogged about here. “I can’t recall a candidate who’s put together such a full-fledged transportation plan,” he said. Among the infrastructure problems the next president will tackle will be to “have an air traffic control system that works.”

Downey identified three “vehicles” through which Obama would improve transportation: First, a short-term boost in spending to create jobs and provide economic stimulus. Second, a ten-year, $60 billion “National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank.” Third, a federal highway spending bill (due next year) with fewer earmarks and a systemic approach.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin

Holtz-Eakin

Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, spoke of McCain’s agenda (or lack thereof) in two categories: process and the federal role. On process, he noted McCain’s opposition to all earmarks and his support for economic review, return-on-investment analysis of transportation projects, and “performance and accountability measures.” Holtz-Eakin emphasized the need to identify properly the federal role in transportation planning and spending in relation to local and state agencies and “the important role of the private sector.”

As for Obama’s National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, Holtz-Eakin said “it isn’t something [McCain] supports . . . very reminiscent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” (more…)

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