Washington aviation officials have been watching with fascination as the Air Transport Association - the trade group representing most US majors - has transformed itself into an effective lobbying entity. Gone are calls heard only a year ago for disbanding the group because it was a waste of money for carriers which have their own government affairs units, or use lawyers to lobby for them.

What has happened is the convergence of several factors that, depending on whom is asked, are given different rankings in terms of importance. Cutbacks in the past two years have made the organisation leaner and more focused. There is April's hiring of Carol Hallett, the former head of the US Customs Service, as ATA's new president. Hallett is a combative presence who seems well suited to push the airline industry's agenda in Washington. And then there is the notion that ATA member airlines may have more in common than has traditionally been thought (to the detriment of ATA's lobbying muscle in the past).

The latter point is probably the most important to consider. It speaks specifically to the 4.3 cent per gallon fuel tax that the Clinton administration deferred imposing on US carriers for two years in October 1993. The deadline is soon up, and US airlines have been mobilised into action - not by themselves but by ATA, which wants not only another deferral but a complete revocation of the tax and what it says is an unwanted $530 million a year hit on the industry.

Coordinated meetings of airline CEOs with key representatives, grass roots lobbying efforts, and authoritative defences of the airline industry at budget hearings on Capitol Hill, all have the ATA's imprimatur.

So successful has the ATA been on the fuel tax issue that people are beginning to wonder what will happen if the tax is actually imposed. Even if that does not happen, anything less than full repeal could be a serious letdown for ATA and its constituents. This is bad news, since most aviation officials believe that the ultimate outcome will be, at best, a decrease in the tax or another deferral.

Source: Airline Business