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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

I bet you’re thinking, how would a bailout of the “big three” U.S.-based automakers — General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler — affect a bailout of the airline industry? Tellingly, a few observers have compared the situation with the car-makers (Scene: Washington. Detroit: Give us big money money; our bankruptcy is your DOOM. Congress: Sure, always happy to help the UAW, but let’s install a car czar to apply industrial policy and oversee green car production.) with the airline bailout in 2001. A while back, I warned that as troubles persist in the airline industry, we should look out for a revival of the Air Transportation Stabilization Board. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Paul Ingrassia holds up the ATSB as a model for Detroit:

If public dollars are the only way to keep General Motors afloat, as the company contends, a complete restructuring under a government overseer or oversight board has to be the price.

That is essentially the role played by the federal Air Transportation Stabilization Board in doling out taxpayer dollars to the airlines in the wake of 9/11. The board consisted of senior government officials with a staff recruited largely from the private sector. It was no figurehead. When one airline brought in a lengthy, convoluted restructuring plan, a board official ordered it to come back with something simpler and sustainable. uniThe Stabilization Board did its job — selling government-guaranteed airline loans and warrants to private investors, monitoring airline bankruptcies to protect the interests of taxpayers — and even returned money to the government.

William Swelbar provides a little more background:

On multiple occasions, United applied for an ATSB-backed loan prior to its decision to file for bankruptcy protection in late 2002. The ATSB continually found that United had failed to file a business plan that was sustainable. Ultimately United filed for bankruptcy protection and continues its restructuring today. The ATSB simply was not prepared to provide United a bridge loan to nowhere. Today, United is in a much better place as a result. Not out of the woods completely, but the prospects for tomorrow are much brighter.

The travel industry disintegration after 9/11 was an unexpected external shock, but for airlines like United, it unmasked the unsustainable labor obligations and management decisions that were obscured in the heady boom time of 1999-2001. Some airlines, the ATSB determined, could do with a small loan guarantee in order to get through a rough time not of the airlines’ making. But for legacy carriers with legacy cost structures, a bailout would only postpone the reckoning to come, possibly making the pain worse later. United, Delta, and Northwest all needed a run through bankruptcy court. (I’ll say that United did not do enough to help itself in bankruptcy court. For example, management threw out silly ideas like Ted and didn’t simplify its fleet sufficiently.)

What does this have to do with Detroit? As I said back in June, the times today do not call for an airline bailout. Nor do they call for a bailout for Detroit. The big three’s special pleading notwithstanding, its problems are due entirely to bad management and extraordinary concessions to labor unions. As Swelbar adds, “It is my hope that we do nothing unless a radical transformation of the legacy issues that make the auto industry non-competitive are insisted upon.”

So where does that leave the big three? Exactly where legacy airlines were left: in bankruptcy court. Michael Levine — an aviation policy expert, natch — points out in today’s Wall Street Journal, “GM as it is cannot survive without long-term government life support. If it gets that support, it can’t change enough and won’t change fast enough. Contrary to [GM CEO Rick] Wagoner’s brave declaration, bankruptcy is an option. In fact, it’s the only option that merits public support and actually has a chance at succeeding.”

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If you’re a regular reader of the Aviation Policy Blog (and I hope you are; the best way to keep up to date is to subscribe to my feed), you’re well aware of how aviation is playing out in the 2008 election (or the extent to which it isn’t). In today’s Wall Street Journal, “Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney takes on what the next president will need to do. I commend this read to you. First, the stakes of inaction on aviation issues:

Last year, nearly one-quarter of all U.S. airline flights were delayed, and the average delay was 55 minutes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Passengers lost 112 million hours of time spent waiting. . . . And that doesn’t count the delay already baked into airline schedules. On average, U.S. airline flights were scheduled 15 minutes longer in 2006 than in 1997, based on the same distances. . . . Delays cost airlines $8.1 billion in direct operating costs in 2007, mostly burning extra fuel and paying crews for the extra time. That’s more than the U.S. industry has ever earned in a year. . . . More than 1,600 flights last year sat for longer than three hours waiting to take off, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. More than 4.4 million bags were mishandled. Complaints about airline service were up 65% last year.

McCartney outlines several steps that the next president can take. He also underscores the urgency of making these changes now: “The time to fix it is now, when the economic downturn has given the system some slack. This is when it’s easiest to replace, repair and expand.” We didn’t do this during our last downturn, after 9/11, and it hurt badly in 2006-2007. So, what does he recommend?

  • Air traffic control modernization. “The current time-table for modernizing air-traffic control covers 20 years, and the history of the effort is filled with delays. What’s needed is a full-court press. He then quotes Marion Blakey on how viable ATC transformation is, but her five years at the helm of the FAA and in charge of NextGen are conveniently glossed over.
  • Split the FAA into two agencies. “Many industry watchers would like to see the FAA split into two parts: a safety regulator for airlines, airports and air-traffic controllers, and a separate air-traffic-control system run in a business-like manner by a not-for-profit entity, not government.” That includes this industry-watcher. “One major reason to split the FAA is that the agency today is both the safety regulator and the operator,” McCartney continues. “In air-traffic control, the FAA regulates itself, leading to potential conflicts of interest.” He cites Dorothy Robyn’s excellent paper this summer for the Brookings Institution’s excellent Hamilton Project. He also quotes former Continental chairman Gordon Bethune, who carries the flag for ATC privatization/commercialization: “Bethune . . . hopes the new president will push for ‘a quasi-government agency to build and operate a modern air-traffic-control system.’ Bond financing could be used for new equipment instead of asking Congress to pay for it year by year.”
  • Other issues. McCartney urges measures to make TSA screening less invasive and troublesome; passenger-bill-of-rights-type measures, a “better plan” to ease congestion at New York-area airports, “a Transportation Secretary with muscle to fix the problem, not prolong it,” and incentives for greener, cleaner aerospace R&D.

To McCartney’s memo, I would add the following items:

  • A new FAA administrator, hired from outside the agency, with respect from industry and labor. Labor-management relations at the agency are beyond toxic, and promoting current management (as Bush did when he nominated Robert Sturgell) is only going to inflame the situation. To the extent that Barack Obama has engaged in aviation issues, he has been entirely aligned with the air traffic controllers; he needs to demonstrate his independence by picking someone who will command the controllers’ respect and negotiate with them while still defending the prerogatives of the FAA’s “customers”–system users–and taxpayers.
  • A commitment to an alternative funding structure for the FAA. Ticket and fuel taxes are not enough. The FAA needs a user fee system. This will align use of the system with the cost of providing ATC services. The current administration has admirably pushed for user fees; perhaps, in an environment less rabidly partisan than that existing between Congress and the White House, we can see rapprochement on this crucial priority.

Commentators rightly say that thirty years out, we’re not going backward on airline deregulation. But will the next president take crucial steps in pursuing “Deregulation 2.0,” the critical public-sector overhaul that will make our aviation system more competitive, productive, and efficient for decades into the future? If the next president takes on established interests and pursues these reforms, future generations of fliers will thank him.

A Flier’s Plea to the New President [WSJ]

See also the LA Times and FlightBlogger guides to the politics of air travel.

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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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The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have released the candidates’ answers (or, more accurately, the campaigns’ answers) to their election questionnaire. One of the interesting points about this questionnaire is that even though John McCain has not articulated an aviation agenda, he/his campaign can draw on his Commerce Committee experience to answer these questions pointedly and with examples. Barack Obama’s answers are vague, inconclusive, and sometimes evasive.

For example:

General aviation airports are an important part of the national air transportation system but are often faced with the threat of closure or limits on access. How will you support general aviation airports as part of the national airport system?

McCain:
If I am elected, one of my top transportation priorities will be to modernize the air traffic control system so it can handle the increased traffic that is forecast. The current system cannot efficiently handle these increases. Gridlock in the sky and on the ground at our airports won’t just result in longer delays for airline passengers, but it will also affect general aviation—especially in the busier airspace around our major metropolitan areas. Under such a scenario, it could become very difficult for pilots to use general aviation airports in that airspace, particularly at peak times. In my view, making better use of the air space won’t benefit just commercial aviation, but general aviation as well.

Obama:
General aviation produces over a million jobs in America and is an invaluable part of our economy and the lifestyle of American families across the nation. As president, I will engage the general aviation community in the FAA decision making process and take steps, as I did as a state senator, to ensure that government continues to determine how best to meet the needs of general aviation practitioners.

On the controversial subject of user fees, McCain points out that the acrimonious debate is harming all parties. Obama says, well, not much of anything: (more…)

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Is "Straight Talk Express" now the regional affiliate of Straight Talk Air?

Is "Straight Talk Express" now the regional affiliate of Air McCain?

I haven’t had any luck getting the McCain campaign to fill me in on the details of his aviation plan (if he has one). His website has one mention of aviation, and it’s a throwaway press release on the air traffic control communications outage in August with a boilerplate call for reform in Washington. However, his twenty-six years in Washington and his chairmanship of the Senate committee that oversees aviation mean he has a pretty wide paper trail. Two of the most important issues on which he’s weighed in are air traffic control modernization (and how to fund it) and international aviation agreements.

John McCain has a track record of supporting market-based air traffic control reforms. In a 2001 interview with General Aviation News, which is full of revealing nuggets, he discussed a Reason Foundation report proposing a commercialized, nonprofit government corporation to provide air traffic control services (much like NAV CANADA). The interviewer was especially concerned about McCain’s support for user fees, the bete noire of the general-aviation community, and asked: “You have advocated ATC user fees in the past. Do you continue to support that approach?” McCain replied:

While there are a number of ideas about how to fund the aviation system, I have not yet come to a final conclusion about the best solution. The Commerce Committee will continue to examine different proposals and ideas, including a user-fee system. As I have often stated publicly, I am always open to new and fresh ideas on how to provide the proper funding to ensure a safe and efficient air-transportation system. The issue of user fees is closely linked to funding for the FAA, which is absolutely critical to the future of aviation in our country. The national air transportation system needs a predictable and reliable funding stream that is not subject to unnecessary budget pressures and gimmicks. A positive step in the right direction was the funding provided through the most recent FAA reauthorization bill, commonly known as AIR-21. But AIR-21 is not a permanent solution, and ensuring adequate funding for the long-term future of aviation remains a challenge.

While avoiding an endorsement of the Reason proposal, McCain did promise to include commercialization in the Commerce Committee deliberations on ATC: “However, the issue of ATC modernization is certainly an issue that the Commerce Committee will be looking into this year, and I expect ATC privatization will be included in the overall scope of the debate.”

User fees seem to appeal to McCain’s populist political persona and rhetoric. While acknowledging that user fees should not be structured to harm recreational users, he assails business jets’ use of the system: (more…)

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I previously wrote about Barack Obama’s aviation plan; today’s post is about the one aviation-related bill he’s introduced in Congress, the FAA Fair Labor Management Dispute Resolution Act of 2006 (S 2201). The bill, which never made it out of committee, would have amended the FAA’s personnel management procedures so that the FAA administrator would be unable to impose work rules in stalled labor negotiations without congressional assent. If Congress were not to act on the FAA administrator’s proposed work rules within sixty days, any contract-negotiation impasse would instead have to be submitted to binding arbitration.

Air traffic controllers have been working under these imposed work rules for two years this month. According to the Wall Street Journal, “[T]he FAA imposed contract terms on the union after negotiators failed to reach a deal on pay and working conditions. The FAA ended up imposing significant pay cuts for new controllers and froze salaries of others, along with setting new work rules.” (For more on this, see the controllers’ union and ATC blogs like Get the Flick and The FAA Follies.) Obama’s legislation would have required the FAA to give in and submit to neutral, binding arbitration in its negotiations with the controllers, as the work rules would never have made it past a Democratic Congress (or even perhaps a Republican one — remember, aviation issues don’t break down evenly along party lines).

Labor organizations, including NATCA and AFSCME, supported S 2201. NATCA endorsed Obama for president largely on the strength of this legislation: (more…)

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Welcome, new readers! For more blogging on aviation politics, click here.

First of all, big props to Obama and his campaign team for actually having a transportation agenda [PDF]. The McCain campaign devotes a whole section to manned space exploration but can’t spare a word for aviation. So, to Obama, an A for effort.

Now let’s dig into the plan:

As our society becomes more mobile and interconnected, the need for 21st-century transportation networks has never been greater. However, too many of our nation’s railways, highways, bridges, airports, and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic long-term planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure. As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.

Barack Obama believes that it is critically important for the United States to rebuild its national transportation infrastructure — its highways, bridges, roads, ports, air, and train systems — to strengthen user safety, bolster our long-term competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to grow. Investing in national infrastructure is especially important in our efforts to bolster our homeland security to meet international terrorism and natural disaster threats. . . .  Barack Obama will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation.

Worthy goals. One of the core functions of government is to provide for infrastructure development and maintenance. How will this money be allocated? By DOT, or by Congress? Political realities mandate, for example, that Airport Improvement Fund monies go disproportionately to airports that do not need them as much as the highly trafficked and congested commercial hubs. How it gets allocated is key. (more…)

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