In Washington, events don't happen; they always happen again. It's not necessarily a positive attribute.

Witness the Charles Hunnicutt affair. This unsuspecting trade lawyer, without significant experience in the field of international commercial aviation diplomacy, was recently nominated to become the US Department of Transportation assistant secretary for international policy. Despite his lack of experience, it was suspected that he would finally fill a job that has been vacant since the beginning of 1993 - at least, until American Airlines decided to 'Romero' the nomination.

A year ago, Raymond Romero withdrew his name from consideration as the nominee for the post Hunnicutt is after. Romero, like Hunnicutt, had little experience in international aviation issues, but was being strongly backed by transportation secretary Federico Peña. The two nominees were equally optimistic about their contribution to DOT policy making, even though each would have little time left to achieve anything because of the 1996 presidential elections.

They both also had one final characteristic, one that doomed Romero's nomination and, many believe, could well do the same for Hunnicutt: both nominations were held up in Congress because of angry senators whose constituents include airlines aggrieved by DOT bargaining over decisions with the UK on aviation matters.

For Romero, the airline was Delta Air Lines. Kentucky Democratic senator Wendell Ford successfully killed the Romero nomination by holding up confirmation hearings in the Senate aviation sub committee because DOT was holding out on approval of Delta's plan to codeshare with Virgin Atlantic Airways into London/Heathrow.

For Hunnicutt, it is American. Texas Republican senator Kay Baily Hutchison has had a 'hold' on the nomination since the beginning of November. Hutchison is citing DOT's failure to secure a recent 'mini-deal' with the UK that would have given American the opportunity to move its Dallas-London service from Gatwick to Heathrow. The likenesses are too similar for one DOT official to be comfortable about Hunnicutt's chances: 'This doesn't seem to be going in the right direction.'

As of early December, the chances of turning things around in time for the nomination process to be completed looked unlikely because of another US bilateral, this time with India. The India-US negotiation was primarily instituted at the behest of United Airlines, which won the right to operate its round-the-world service through Delhi and Bombay. Northwest Airlines also received rights to serve India via Amsterdam, from January 1997. In exchange, one of India's gains is a three-times-a-week service for Air-India to Chicago, via London.

In a deft lobbying move during the final days of the negotiation process between the US and India, American found a way to capitalise on an agreement in which it previously had little interest. AMR Corp chairman Robert Crandall sent a letter to the transportation department decrying new competition on Chicago-London to compete with American's three daily flights in the market.

Ed Faberman, American's vice president of government affairs, says: 'At a time when Peña says he doesn't have the ability to get Dallas flights into Heathrow, because the UK says it's so crowded, he approves this?'

The letter arrived too late to change any negotiating positions, but by the time the US-India accord was announced the complaint had already made its way to Capitol Hill. There the Texas delegation in Congress, already fuming about the fact that neither American nor Continental can fly to Heathrow from their home state, were really upset. 'In the past, Texas has lost out to Chicago, but to lose out to a foreign carrier adds insult to injury,' says Republican Pete Geren.

So the hold on Hunnicutt remains in place, says a spokeswoman for Hutchison. This, of course, is the way that Washington has worked for a long time. But the Delta example does not necessarily support the conclusion that obstructing the nomination process has had the desired coercive effect on DOT. Though Romero lost out and Delta eventually was permitted to codeshare with Virgin, DOT's capitulation did not come for months, and then only as part of another deal with the UK.

Now it appears to be Hunnicutt's turn to be a pawn in the airline lobbying game. If past is prologue, he'd better keep his current job, and qualified applicants for the post in the future had better be aware of what is turning into a Washington tradition.

Source: Airline Business