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The Astroturf is greener on the other side of air traffic debate

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A former air traffic control professional, who was publicly critical as recently as late June of the administration’s efforts to privatize air traffic control operation, has emerged as a founder of a “grassroots” organization promoting legislation to spin off air traffic from the government.

Alan Clendenin contacted reporters Sept. 5 to discuss the priority of his group, Flyers for Fairness: support for Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) bill (H.R. 2997) to strip the Federal Aviation Administration of its air traffic control responsibilities.

Months earlier, however, Clendenin denounced the air traffic control spinoff in an interview on a Sarasota, Florida ABC station.

“There’s no other air traffic control system in the world that even comes close to the United States’ air traffic control system,” Clendenin says in the June interview. “Nobody does it better and nobody does it cheaper than the United States of America. It is not broken.”

Clendenin is a current member of the Florida delegation of the Democratic National Committee and a former local leader the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in Florida. He could have come down on either side of the debate: Democrats are largely opposed to the air traffic control proposal, but NATCA is in support.

Instead, he’s gone both ways, adding to the cacophony of interest-group-backed “grassroots” campaigns that seek to influence policy makers and public opinion.

Who Is Flyers for Fairness?

Bloomberg BNA spoke with all but one of the six individuals listed first as “co-founders” and a day later as “allied voices” on the organization’s website.

To a person, each founder said the fledgling group was united by common interests and frustrations with what they called misinformation about the effects of an air traffic control spinoff on general aviation.

Three different founders said they signed on without knowing who was bankrolling the effort.

“Several people recommended it to me. It was easy to just put your name on and sign up,” Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian-oriented Reason Foundation, told Bloomberg BNA.

Poole, a policy expert who supports the group’s mission, does not have connections to the airlines “other than flying on them,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines in some fashion are paying, but I have no idea. I honestly don’t,” Poole said.

Clendenin denied that he was being paid personally by the airlines. He neither denied nor confirmed that the airlines were funding his organization, instead referring Bloomberg BNA’s question to Airlines for America.

Several other founders denied the involvement of Airlines for America, the airline-supported advocacy group that funds another “grassroots” campaign, Citizens for On Time Flights.

“We are aware of and support the effort, just as [Airlines for America] obviously supports a variety of groups who want to reform the system,” Airlines for America spokesman Vaughn Jennings told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

Marathon Strategies, a public relations firm that contacted Bloomberg BNA on Clendenin’s behalf and helped distribute the Sept. 5 press release, includes companies like Tesla Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. as well as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) among its current and former clients.

Clendenin and several other founders who spoke with Bloomberg BNA would not comment on how Flyers for Fairness was paying for its New York-based public relations firm.

“I don’t really want to get into the inner workings of the organization,” Clendenin said in a phone interview that a public relations associate had arranged and was listening in on.

His history with air traffic as a former controller and earlier involvement in the legislative activities of the local traffic controllers union were what brought him to this cause, Clendenin told Bloomberg BNA.

When he thought it was a true “privatization” effort, he said he balked. Clendenin changed his position on the issue after seeing Shuster’s legislation, he told Bloomberg BNA.

“When this bill was published and I finally read it, they had addressed every one of my concerns that we’ve have had over the years” he said, about the bill’s benefits for air traffic controllers.

NATCA denied any relationship to the fledgling pro-air traffic control spinoff group or Clendenin.

“His group has no affiliation or connection with NATCA,” Doug Church, a spokesman for NATCA, told Bloomberg BNA in an email. “NATCA speaks for itself on the issue of [air traffic control] reform.”

Several co-founders demurred on disclosing the funding source for the organization, others said flatly that they did not know. NATCA says it is not involved. Airlines for America did not expressly deny funding the organization, but several board members said the airline group isn’t in the mix. The target of Flyers for Fairness’ campaign—business aviation—thinks the airlines are involved, but so far there is no proof.

Targeting Corporate Jets

Flyers for Fairness set its sites on general aviation users like private corporate jets.

The policy debate over air traffic control has hinged on the concerns of general aviation and rural airports. The new grassroots effort wants to draw a distinction between the mom-and-pop general aviation community and the wealthy corporate jet users.

“Flyers for Fairness will expose the anti-modernization campaign mounted by corporate and private jet owners and their special interest group, the National Business Aviation Association, while setting the record straight on the benefits of [air traffic control] reform,” the group wrote in its Sept. 5 press release.

House General Aviation Caucus ultimately supported the 2017 air traffic control bill, after Chairman Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) negotiated with Shuster over provisions like user fees. Several Flyers for Fairness founders told Bloomberg BNA in separate interviews that they assumed as a result that the general aviation community would now be on board.

“They day after the bill passed in the House transportation committee, for [the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association] to come out with this blast against it, I was just astonished,” Poole said. “I really thought that they would be satisfied that they’d won a big victory,.”

Why Corporate Jets?

“If you work in the system you kind of see it,” Clendenin said. “It’s a finite national air space. This small segment of users really have a disproportionate use of the airspace versus what they pay.”

“They should cough up and pay for the air traffic control system that they use,” he added.

The National Business Aviation Association took issue with Clendenin’s characterization of its role and questioned the former air traffic controller’s change of heart.

”This new group, purported to represent flyers, looks to be yet another airline-fronted attempt to shift attention away from the serious concerns being voiced about [air traffic control] privatization from members of Congress, community leaders, actual passengers, and that even have been voiced by its own director,” the business aviation group’s Communication Director Dan Hubbard said in an email to Bloomberg BNA.

Last-Minute Push

The debate could be rendered moot when Shuster’s bill comes to the House floor, as he has predicted will happen the week of Sept. 11.

If an FAA bill spinning off air traffic control to a new non-profit corporation does not pass in the House, that is likely the end of the road for the idea, lawmakers and interest groups have predicted in conversations with Blomberg BNA.

If Shuster musters the necessary votes in the House, the provision faces a skeptical Senate.

The murky machinations of Flyers for Fairness could be short-lived.

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The post The Astroturf is greener on the other side of air traffic debate appeared first on Bloomberg Government.

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