The user fee battle, as the long-running increasingly shrill FAA funding debate has taken to the airwaves as well as the airways. In addition to the little pleadings that the carriers are making their in-flight magazines (see 'Seatback Squabble' blog of July 8), the airlines’ trade group, the Air Transport Association (ATA) has put a character up on the radio and You Tube to carry their case against corporate aviation. She’s Edna, a classic American waitress from a road-side dinner where nothing, not the menu the decor or the hairdos has changed since the 1960s. She has a big wig but doesn’t like big wigs - or subsidising their big private jets. The airlines are hoping that this populist appeal, the suggestion that only bigwigs and corporate high rollers fly private jets and that they don't pay their way, will gain them public sympathy. They're even posting ads inside the Washington Metro System's subway cars, though they deny that they are running an underground campaign.
But one airline chief is hastening to append a few remarks to his editorials lambasting ‘fat cats in their big private jets’. Gerard Arpey, the American Airlines chief executive, told reporters the other day that many of his private pilot friends had contacted him in anger about the editorial he wrote in the airline’s in-flight seatback book, American Way. “I keep going out of my way to tell my pilot friends that the proposal doesn’t add any burden to piston-powered general aviation. I’m a pilot too,” said Arpey, who often flies his young family around Texas on the weekends. Or at least he used to before taking over.
Arpey’s not the only airline executive taking on the issue personally. Jim Whitehurst, one of the two likely candidates to take over at Delta Air Lines when CEO Jerry Grinstein leaves this summer, went to Capitol Hill the other day. Whitehurst, Delta’s chief operating officer, told a Senate finance subcommittee that without new ways to finance an air-traffic control upgrade, the US system “will slide into a troubled and unreliable system plagued by an inadequate infrastructure”. He outlined some changes in the ATA proposal, including a move away from the red-flag phrase 'user fee' and toward the passenger tax concept. Whitehurst is the first airline guy to go to a congressional hearing; until now, the case has been made by ATA chief Jim May.