After a turbulent year marked by consumer frustration over skyrocketing airfare, flight cancellations and delays, airline lobbying has taken off in the first half of 2023. Airline companies and affiliated industry groups have spent tens of millions of dollars on federal lobbying efforts so far this year, with major airline groups such as United Airlines and Airlines for America being the biggest spenders.
The airline industry reported spending a total of $17.4 million on federal lobbying in the first half of 2023 — an increase of more than $4 million in lobbying spending from this time last year.
The biggest spender on airline related lobbying in the first half of 2023 was United Airlines, which spent $980,000 and $3.6 million in the first and second quarters of 2023, respectively — nearly quadrupling the amount they spent on first quarter lobbying efforts during the second quarter.
United Airlines outspent the trade association Airlines for America — which was the industry’s biggest spender from 2020 through 2022 — by nearly $1.7 million.
The airline also hired more lobbyists than last year — reporting 31 lobbyists this year versus 28 in 2022. However, Airlines for America still paid more lobbyists than United, reporting hiring 43 lobbyists this year — the same amount the group hired in 2022 .
Major airline groups, such as United and Airlines for America, have outspent budget, regional and international airline groups on lobbying so far this year. Six airlines and groups associated with major airlines have collectively reported spending $13.4 million on lobbying in the first half of 2023, an increase of nearly $4 million compared to this time last year.
Legislation to increase the number of long-distance flights available through Reagan National Airport outside of Washington, D.C., has been a primary lobbying topic for several major airlines. United, Delta, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines all reported lobbying on the Direct Capital Access Act of 2023, a bill introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that would add more daily flights out of the airport, specifically increasing the number of non-stop flights that travel beyond the 1,250 mile perimeter enforced by federal law.
The bill has drawn opposition from local airport officials. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees the operations of Reagan National and Washington Dulles International Airport, claim that the perimeter rule “is essential for maintaining the operational and economic balance between the small, space-constrained and over-crowded Reagan National (DCA) and the much-larger Dulles International (IAD), which is equipped to handle larger planes and longer flights.”
Major airlines are divided on the issue. A statement on Delta’s website says that the perimeter rule “is stifling competition and creating higher ticket prices for consumers traveling in and out of the National Capital Region.”
Meanwhile, the CEOs of United, American and Alaska Airlines released a joint statement in opposition to the measure, saying their companies “strongly oppose changes to the slot and perimeter rules at Reagan National Airport (DCA). The Federal Aviation Administration and Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority have expressed serious concerns that adding flights at DCA will dramatically increase passenger delays and erode the operational integrity of the airport.”
The statement also expressed concerns about Reagan National expansion measures being included in proposed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization legislation, saying that including these provisions in the bill would imperil its timely passage. The FAA reauthorization bill, formally titled the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, which passed the House in late July would reauthorize the FAA until 2028, but also includes a number of other provisions that have sparked debate. Adding flights at Reagan National was one of these measures, but the amendment proposing this, ultimately, failed to get added to the bill before it passed the house.
United, American and Alaska Airlines’ CEOs argued passing the FAA reauthorization bill was crucial to “improve safety and efficiency of air travel for the entire system.” The bill, which needs to be approved by the Senate before the current FAA authorization bill expires on Sept. 30, directly addresses air transit safety through several measures, including one that directs the FAA to increase air traffic controller hiring targets.
Major airline groups were not the only spenders on airline related lobbying. Three budget airlines — JetBlue, Southwest and Allegiant Air — spent a combined $2.3 million on lobbying efforts during the first half of the year. This is a $630,000 increase in lobbying spending from the same period last year, despite the fact that two other low-cost airlines, Frontier Airlines and Northern Pacific Airways, also reported lobbying in the first half of 2022 but have not reported any lobbying so far this year.
The biggest budget airline lobbying spender was JetBlue, which has spent $1.5 million so far this year — a $570,000 increase from this time last year. JetBlue outspent the second biggest spender, Southwest, by $850,000.
Much of JetBlue’s lobbying efforts have focused on a proposed JetBlue and Spirit Airlines merger. JetBlue spent $3.8 billion to purchase Spirit Airlines in July 2022, prompting the U.S. Justice Department to file a lawsuit against JetBlue in March over antitrust concerns.
International and regional airline groups also reported lobbying the federal government, though their presence on K Street is smaller than that of domestic companies.. Three international airline groups reported spending a total of $260,000 in the first six months of 2023 — Korean Air, Deutsche Lufthansa and International Air Transport Association. This is a decrease from international airline lobbying efforts last year, when five groups reported spending $580,000 in the first half of the year.
Korean Air reported spending the most on lobbying efforts — $120,000 in the first half of 2023, a decrease of $280,00 compared to this time last year.
Regional airline groups, small passenger airlines that focus on short haul flights, on the other hand, have increased their lobbying spending slightly compared to this time in 2022. So far this year, six regional airline groups have spent $600,000– an increase from $550,000 in the first half of 2022. The biggest spender among regional groups has been Regional Airlines Association, a business association of 17 member regional airlines, which spent $270,000.