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"Airlines to lobby for revamp of FAA funding next year"


 
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Airlines to lobby for revamp of FAA funding next year 
By Trebor Banstetter 
The Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram


FORT WORTH, Texas - For two years, Washington, D.C., was a battleground in
the conflict between American and Southwest airlines over the Wright
Amendment. Both carriers deluged lawmakers with appeals for support.

Now that the struggle has ended with a compromise approved by Congress in
September, both carriers find themselves on the same side of the latest
aviation battle in the nation's capital. Executives with American and
Southwest say their top lobbying priority in 2007 will be to restructure how
the nation's aviation infrastructure is financed.

Their efforts are part of a broad effort by the commercial airline industry
to revamp funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that
oversees air-traffic control, airports and other aspects of the aviation
system. Congress must reauthorize the agency's funding this year, and the
airlines see the reauthorization as an opportunity to get operators of
corporate jets and small aircraft to pay a larger share.

''It's great to have the Wright Amendment off our backs,'' said Will Ris,
senior vice president of government affairs for Fort Worth-based American.
''It would have been a real distraction if we were dealing with that as well
next year.''

American will also push for more pension reform, and the industry plans to
closely monitor security issues.

The change in control in Congress to the Democrats isn't likely to have much
effect on aviation issues, Ris said.

''Transportation tends to be a pretty neutral thing,'' he said. ''You don't
see much of a partisan effect on these issues.''

Regardless, the revamp of the FAA will be the chief focus in 2007. The major
airlines argue that they pay the lion's share of the costs of the nation's
air-traffic system through a ticket tax that dates to the 1970s, before
industry deregulation.

According to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group,
commercial airlines pay 94 percent of the revenues that go into the aviation
trust fund, which pays for airport infrastructure and improvements as well
as some of the FAA's operations.

But the airlines use 68 percent of the system, according to the group.

''There has been an explosive growth in general aviation,'' said Sharon
Pinkerton, the group's vice president of government affairs and former head
of policy for the FAA.

Some corporate aviation companies, like fractional ownership firm NetJets
Inc., compete with airlines for first-class customers, she noted.

''Our argument is that they're taking up significant resources without
paying their fair share,'' she said.

Ron Ricks, senior vice president for law, airports and public affairs at
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, said he isn't interested in squeezing money
out of amateur pilots.

''The typical private pilot with a small, single-engine aircraft isn't the
issue,'' he said. ''We're talking about the movie stars or the huge
companies that have fleets of private jets.''

Ricks said a revamping of the FAA's funding could lead to lower fares for
consumers or reduce the need to increase prices.

''Look, if our tax burden weren't so high, there wouldn't be as much
pressure to raise fares,'' he said. ''At the very least, we could keep fares
the same and make more money.''

Small-aircraft owners, meanwhile, have blasted the airlines' goals as unfair
and misleading. They say general aviation adds only marginal costs to the
FAA.

Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, pointed
out that costs did not decline at Reagan National Airport when general
aviation was banned from that facility after 9-11.

''If general aviation stopped flying tomorrow, how much less would it cost
to run the air-traffic control system?'' he asked in a statement.

The group points out that the aviation trust fund is projected to have a
$4.2 billion surplus by 2011. ''The system isn't broken, and it doesn't need
to be fixed,'' Boyer said.

Although FAA funding is a top priority, it isn't the only item American will
push in Congress next year. The airline is hoping to modify a recent
pension-reform law to get some more relief in its funding obligations.

The law gave American and Continental airlines 10 years to pay off their
funding shortfalls. But it gave rivals Northwest and Delta airlines 17
years, because those carriers had frozen their retirement plans.

Those airlines also got a more favorable interest rate on the pensions.

''We really feel like we deserve the same favorable treatment as the other
airlines,'' Ris said. He said it was unfair to penalize American for keeping
its pensions intact.

The airline industry will also monitor efforts to increase security
screening of cargo transported on passenger flights. That's one issue on
which Democrats have shown more interest than Republicans, Ris said.

''We're happy to move toward standards that are more comprehensive, as
quickly as we can,'' he said. ''But we want to be careful that those
standards don't put us out of the cargo business entirely.''

Pinkerton, of the Air Transport Association, said the group will push for
cargo screening that increases the use of dogs trained to sniff for
explosives. She said that method is more effective-and far cheaper-than
electronic screening.

''Canine teams are very, very good at detecting explosives,'' she said.

American and Southwest say they are likely to get a lot more done now that
the Wright issue has been put to rest.

''It would have been extremely difficult to juggle those issues at once,''
said Ricks, of Southwest. ''And it also just feels good to have it all
resolved.''

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