I was thumbing through the Sunday Washington Post last night and came across an article in the Business Section called “Moneybags.” I figured it was about hedge fund managers or Alex Rodriguez. But it was about the bag fees and other fees charged by the airlines. And not so much that the airlines charge those fees, but the fact that by doing so the Aviation Trust Fund is being shortchanged, with big implications for the future of the American air transportation system.
Now I have been one of those saying all along that airlines can charge whatever they want. It is a deregulated system and if the customer will pay then, as long as everything is fairly disclosed, they can charge how they want. That doesn’t always make me popular in some quarters.
But what I have also pointed out is that by moving to this model the system we have for funding aviation investments in this country is now broken and in need of reform. And that if we don’t reform it then we will be short of the revenue we need to really implement NextGen and to fund capital improvements (if someone can show me how to do those things without money I am all ears.). And NextGen is something the airlines all tell me they really want and need (count me skeptical on that score, but that’s another post).
At the same time, the fiscal cliff Congress has built as an incentive for a new debt deal looms and millions of people now know a new Washington term “sequestration.” I wrote about this earlier this week in an AOL.com article. All of these things conspire to push the implementation of NextGen; and efforts to build a 21st century aviation infrastructure, further into the future.
I have said it before. Most of the aviation community understands these things and knows we need to address them. The ACI-NA Board passed a resolution calling for a new National Aviation Policy to deal with them. Included in this policy is rationalizing the tax and regulatory regime under which airlines operate. It was not an “airport-only” resolution. I think most of the aviation community agrees with this. The only thing keeping us from dealing with it is the refusal of the airlines (as a group) to work with airports and discuss ways to modernize the system for financing airport infrastructure. I truly hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will be able to all work together to build the kind of air transportation system we all say we want; a system that will ensure a competitive future for a competitive nation.
A final note: One of my real “Welcome to Washington” moments came right after I got here in 1979. I was a 23 year old, freshly-minted, Senate staffer and was briefing my boss on the merits and demerits of a bill to bail out the Chrysler Corporation (yes, boys and girls, the issues don’t really change). We got on a Senate elevator and I continued to talk. I all of a sudden realized that the others on the elevator were all listening to me. Their names were George McGovern, Frank Church and Birch Bayh. All people I had grown up admiring. The fact that they listened actually made me more confident; it was a real key moment.
So, I was saddened to learn yesterday that Senator McGovern had passed away. Most of you know him as a failed presidential candidate, but he was so much more: a hero of World War II, a dedicated public servant and a genuinely nice fellow. He and Bob Dole worked closely together on programs to ensure that children and others in this country would have access to the food they would need. He worked later in life with Jack Kemp on tort reform issues. He was someone willing to work across the aisle with anyone who could help solve a problem. One of the real ah ha moments I had (a series of moments, I guess) was seeing Senator McGovern in action, and also seeing Senator Barry Goldwater work (Sen. Goldwater’s office was right next to ours, talked to him a few times, another nice fellow and not the devil I was told he was when I was a kid). The two of them represent, to many people, polar opposites in American political ideology. But each was willing to work across the aisle. Each wanted to legislate. Hopefully they are getting together in the Senate in the sky and can help inspire today’s political leaders to look to a time when such things were possible. Sen. George McGovern. RIP.