Airline execs, regulators enjoy a cozy relationship
By Rita Beamish and Sharon Theimer
WASHINGTON — What the airline industry wants from Washington it often gets, and no wonder. The people who regulate airlines on one day can become company executives the next — and the other way around.
Industry leaders who were once under the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority now sit in top positions at the agency. Many former FAA officials and congressional aides have found lucrative jobs in the air travel industry or with its lobbying groups. One top official left the FAA two years ago to become the airline industry’s top lobbyist.
Just Thursday, the law firm Jones Day announced that former FAA attorney Andrew Steinberg, until recently the Transportation Department’s assistant secretary of aviation and international affairs, will join the firm’s government regulation practice as a partner.
Throw in millions of dollars in campaign and lobbying money, and factor in the airlines’ importance to lawmakers’ home cities and states, and it adds up to a powerful industry that even some of the nation’s most frequent fliers — members of Congress — can be reluctant to tackle. Broad deregulation and multibillion-dollar government bailouts are among the industry’s major victories in recent decades.
The industry’s revolving-door relationship with the government is under fresh scrutiny after two federal safety inspectors accused senior FAA officials of ignoring maintenance and inspection problems at Southwest Airlines, which is now facing a record $10.2 million fine. American Airlines last week canceled flights affecting 250,000 travelers to make safety checks, and Alaska Airlines and Midwest Airlines also grounded planes for inspections.
"We need an FAA that actually fixes problems as they are found rather than one that rushes into a public relations campaign to assure everyone that there isn’t a problem," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee, said Thursday at her panel’s hearing on aviation safety.