Is Rep. Bill Shuster Getting Too Friendly With Airline Lobbyists?
PHOTO: Rep. Bill Shuster, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. (Photo courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives)
Rep. Bill Shuster, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is the man behind the bill that would strip the FAA of control of America’s air traffic control system. With support from most of the major airlines, the bill as put forward by Schuster would essentially create a non-profit corporation that would take over ATC operations throughout the country. This is largely seen as Schuster's bill, which is why several details about his social life, and close ties to stakeholders in this debate, bear closer scrutiny.
A contentious debate
There have been strong arguments on both sides of this privatization debate. Some complain that Shuster’s plan is an unnecessary step that will only prolong the process. Delta Air Lines, for example, is of the opinion that the best move is to lobby the FAA to improve ATC and institute NextGen technology. Some travel advocates simply do not trust airlines to act in the best interest of travelers. Major airlines would have representatives on the board of the new, private ATC organization. The fear is that they would make ATC-related decisions based on what is best for themselves, not for travelers.
On the other side are arguments that point to successful private ATC operations in Canada and the U.K. Lobbying groups like Airlines for America, which is backed by American Airlines and United, say that the FAA has not and will not build the momentum needed for change. Moreover, they may not be able to fund improvements like NextGen implementation if Congress does not give them the money to do so. A private company would be better able to raise funds for such improvements without relying on Washington.
Shuster’s close relationship with lobbyists
There is now another element to this story. A recent report by Politico points out the very close relationship that Rep. Shuster has with top members of the Airlines for America lobbying group. Just a few days after his committee approved a bill that could lead to the overhaul of ATC, Shuster was in Miami Beach socializing with none other than Nick Calio, the head of Airlines for America.
The excuse was that this was a fundraising event for one of Shuster’s fellow Republicans. However, Shuster’s girlfriend was also in Miami Beach. The woman, Shelley Rubino, is a senior vice president at Airlines for America.
Politico first ran a story about Shuster’s relationship with Rubino last year. At that time, the Congressman said that his office had “a policy that deals with personal relationships that cover my staff and myself… Under that policy, Ms. Rubino doesn’t lobby my office.”
Given that Shuster and Airlines for America are heavily involved in one of this year’s most hotly debated air travel issues, his relationship with Rubino and the time he spent with Calio in Florida will certainly get people’s attention. According to the Politico story, even lobbyists on the Miami Beach trip were somewhat taken aback by the way Shuster was spending most of his time socializing with the A4A brass.
Not a foregone conclusion
Whether or not you think Shuster’s relationships are newsworthy, the fact is that the new FAA bill is still a long way from passing. It was originally supposed to be debated on the floor of the house before the end of February. That will not happen because, in its current form, the bill does not have enough support to pass. Changes will most likely be made so that Shuster can get more people on board. However, getting enough support is not a foregone conclusion. During the most recent hearing, even members of Shuster’s own party questioned whether the privatization of ATC would give airlines too much power.
At the very least, this new mention of Shuster’s cozy relationship with airline lobbyists will provide those opposed to the bill some new ammunition to bring to the debate.
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