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You may have already met Edna, the blue-collar, big-haired lady who flew coach — probably in the middle seat. She’s been hanging out in your in-flight magazine, in your newspaper, on the video screen at your baggage carousel, and on YouTube. Her catchphrase? Edna likes “to wear big wigs, not subsidize them.” She’s starring in an intense PR campaign from the airlines over how best to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, which is set to run out of money on Sept. 30. The airlines aren’t the only ones interested in FAA funding. In fact, a m�lange of interest groups is lobbying the issue in a strikingly public manner. That’s because airlines, recreational pilots, and corporate aviation all have enormous stakes in the FAA, as do millions of increasingly frustrated travelers. The taxes and surcharges at the center of the battle over the skies will affect everyone who flies for years to come. Airlines argue that their passengers have been paying more than their share under the current system, even as growing corporate air traffic puts disproportionate strain on the system, which contributes to delays. The groups representing private aviation counter that the airlines are merely trying to secure a tax cut for themselves by burdening small users of the nation’s airspace, and at the same time, duck their own responsibility for massive flight delays. Of course, all this sniping is good news for K Street. So far this year, the groups involved have reported millions of dollars in lobbying expenses on this and other issues. For instance, Southwest Airlines has paid the Loeffler Group $120,000 this year, and Northwest Airlines has spent $100,000 with Elmendorf Strategies. Delta Air Lines’ own lobbyists reported $1.8 million in expenses covering lobbying on a variety of matters, including the FAA reauthorization. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association reported spending $3.3 million on in-house lobbying expenses, while on the other side the Air Transport Association of America (known as the ATA), the airlines’ trade group, reported spending $2.7 million in-house, in addition to hiring outside lobbyists. AOPA is rallying its 413,000 members to defeat proposals they say would cripple general aviation in the United States by increasing costs. The group has run some ads on the Weather Channel and has forged an alliance with the National Business Aviation Association. Both groups are part of a new coalition called the Alliance for Aviation Across America. The airlines have taken it a step further, working to enlist their customers through what they are calling the “Smart Skies” campaign. The ATA has worked to put opinion pieces in in-flight magazines, videos on baggage carousels and the Internet, and print ads featuring Edna everywhere from airports to the Capitol South Metro to The Wall Street Journal and newspapers that circulate on Capitol Hill. Passengers “are affected two ways,” says James May, president and CEO of the ATA and the airline industry’s chief lobbyist. “They are the ones that have to suffer through these delays, and they are also the ones who are directly subsidizing corporate aircraft, who are using this system at a very significant discount.” But Andy Cebula, AOPA’s executive vice president for government affairs, says the United States now boasts the world’s most vibrant general aviation community, constituting 78 percent of the world’s general aviation. Cebula maintains that instituting user fees and fuel taxes, two of the possibilities under consideration, would stifle that by forcing members to cut back on flying. “This has been a fight for about two years,” Cebula says. “I feel like we’re under siege. The FAA has been out to get us.” THE FIGHT FOR FLIGHT CONTROL The legislation setting the taxes and fees that fund the FAA expires on Sept. 30, and everyone agrees that it can’t be allowed to lapse. The money pays for infrastructure projects at airports around the country, including new runways from Boston to Seattle-Tacoma. Everyone involved also says the FAA needs to move ahead with an upgraded air traffic control system, known as Nextgen. Air traffic is expected to increase rapidly, and without a more sophisticated system, the nation’s airways will become even more overwhelmed than they are already. The fund has enough of a reserve to keep current projects going for roughly two months before running out of money, but after that, important projects could grind to a halt. Currently, the fund draws money from fuel taxes and what the airlines call a ticket tax — a surcharge added onto each ticket or the cost of each charter flight. The House and Senate have separate bills with different funding proposals, and the FAA has a third. General aviation groups favor the House bill, which would increase fuel taxes and a variety of transactional fees (such as the fee for registering a plane, which currently costs $5 — it hasn’t increased since 1964). The bill otherwise continues much of the current fee structure. But the FAA argues that the current system is too volatile, with revenue rising and falling along with ticket prices. Instead, the agency wants the funding system to be tied to cost. Both the FAA and the airlines say general aviation is responsible for roughly 16 percent of system costs but provides only 3 percent of revenue, and that needs to change. The Government Accountability Office has reviewed the FAA’s numbers and says the methodology the agency used could be better, so the gap may be smaller — as the NBAA and AOPA say they believe it is — but a gap exists, the GAO says, and it should be addressed. The FAA and the airlines favor proposals with user fees for all jets, something they say that, together with fuel tax increases, would force everyone to pay a fair share of costs. Recreational fliers in turbine aircraft who stay away from the biggest airports would be exempt under the current proposals. But Cebula points to Canada, where, he says, user fees were eventually expanded to include all types of aircraft and general aviation has suffered. And aviation groups that don’t include the airlines are questioning whether making users pay based on the costs they incur is the best policy for the skyways. “You don’t base the cost to deliver a letter based on how much it costs to deliver a particular letter,” Cebula says, adding that schools and highways aren’t wholly supported by user fees, either. “There are all kinds of places in our country where we say, �This is of such value to us that we are going to allow one segment of the tax-paying community to help support a bigger portion of the overall cost of the system.’” PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR AIRLINES? SURE! Both sides have been appealing to their constituencies, but in many ways, the airlines have the toughest job — especially after a steady drumbeat of headlines about flight delays, planes marooned on the Tarmac for hours, and overbooked flights. Take a poll in most airports — they aren’t winning the popularity contest. But the airlines say mounting frustration over delays makes this the perfect time to urge passengers to action. The needed air traffic control system could help decongest the skies, they say. They’re also rallying passengers by running ads telling them their coach tickets — with noxious food and a lack of legroom — are subsidizing luxurious corporate jet travel. To illustrate the point in one ad, animated jets are cooling their engines on a runway, waiting to take off, when suddenly a sleek corporate jet skips to the head of the line. “Coming through,” it intones. “I’ve got a foursome here with an early tee time!” Needless to say, the big planes don’t like it, and it goes without saying that Edna doesn’t have a tee time at Wingfoot. The ATA’s May says matronly Edna represents “the person sitting in the middle seat in Row 20, who is paying an extra $20 every time she flies so she can subsidize a corporate flier in great luxury.” May says he wanted to reach lawmakers and the public with a more lighthearted campaign than typical issue ads, and he’s gotten positive feedback. He wouldn’t say how much the creative campaign has cost, though Washington Metro officials say the group spent $19,000 to run ads at Capitol South and on buses earlier this summer. “Believe me, I work for the airlines,” May says. “We try to do it as inexpensively as possible.” The ads urge people to contact their representatives. Pam Fielding, president of 720 Strategies, a public affairs firm that specializes in advocacy campaigns and worked on Smart Skies, wouldn’t speak directly about that campaign. But she says issue campaigns, once the domain of nonprofits and advocacy groups, are now frequently originated by business and trade groups. “There are many, many times when a business need crosses over with a customer need,” she says. “What you’re finding is, trade associations are advocating for consumers in many cases and at the same time as advancing their business interests.” Fielding says the company’s role is to make sure constituents know about the issue and have a way to contact their representative on Capitol Hill. “We know that Congress wants to hear from authentic, real-life citizens who have real-life issues,” she says. “If we make that happen, democracy takes care of itself.” The other aviation groups, too, have been rallying their members. The NBAA’s president, Ed Bolen, has called the airlines’ arguments disingenuous. Bolen could not be reached for this story, but in a letter to Southwest Airlines earlier this month, he criticized a piece in the in-flight magazine as deceptive. General aviation accounts for only about 4 percent of traffic at hub airports, he wrote, and the business aviation community is “willing to pay our fair share through the current, efficient fuel tax system.” AOPA’s Cebula says that his group has kept members informed through monthly features in its magazine and regular electronic updates. It asked members to contact their senators before a committee hearing last spring and came close to winning a key vote, though it went the other way. AOPA polled members, and two-thirds wanted the group to oppose user fees, even though they wouldn’t affect recreational aircraft, Cebula says. Members also say that a large fuel tax increase would force them to reduce flying time. One way or another, the issue is supposed to be decided in September. The GAO is expected to issue a new report on costs that month, before the current FAA authorization expires. May hints that a new Edna ad could be arriving before long. Cebula says he expects to continue to work his members. Both say the issue is critical. In the meantime, they’re buckling their seat belts and stowing their tray tables. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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