Airline Lobbyist's Job Is a Dogfight

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

At the end of another tough day of wrangling with government officials, James C. May sat, tie askew, in his big, brown leather chair and sighed. "A lot of people shoot at you," he said. "To cope, you need a good hard shell."

May, president of the Air Transport Association (ATA), is a bear of a man. But even he has grown weary of catching flak lately -- and dispensing so much of it, too.

He and his 100-person association, the airlines' chief lobby, face opponents everywhere they turn: in the Bush administration, in other travel-related industries and even within aviation. May, in other words, is not what people imagine a lobbyist to be -- someone who loves to be liked. He's what a lobbyist actually is most of the time, a warrior against his client's enemies.

And the airlines have plenty of those, more than most other businesses. "Over the years we've done a lot of things to shoot ourselves in the foot," May said.

Members of Congress have privately been bad-mouthing the airlines for years, especially since they became the only industry to get a multibillion-dollar bailout (a term May strongly objects to) in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Still, to keep their fragile finances intact, the airlines have continued to push hard for additional benefits.

"People don't have an appreciation of how complicated this business is," May said.

Corporate-jet owners understand pretty well, yet they still think the airlines are being too grabby by pressing to fund the air traffic control system with a higher tax on jet fuel -- a method that would boost payments from them and probably cut payments from commercial carriers.

The government also has butted heads with the ATA; the Department of Homeland Security wants to improve border security by taking the fingerprints of foreigners flying out of the United States. But the ATA is fighting to prevent the feds from collecting the prints at airline counters, a move that it says would make getting through airports even more inconvenient than it already is.

The ATA has even clashed with others in the travel industry. It aggressively opposed one proposal by the Discover America Partnership, a coalition of industry groups, that would have paid for a visit-America ad campaign by imposing a modest per-ticket entry or exit fee. That, too, would have discouraged fliers, the ATA said.

"We won that fight," May said with a satisfied grin.

The ATA's friends and rivals just shake their heads at that sort of abrasiveness. But they have come to accept that's the way the group operates. In fact, a coalition that includes private aircraft owners has taken out ads that depict the airlines as sharks in a feeding frenzy.

May, 61, grew up in the capital area. He is the son of Rep. Catherine May (R-Wash.) and was part of the first graduating class of Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School in 1964. May did not finish college (he attended the University of Washington); he served as a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam and tried unsuccessfully to win the House seat his mother had held.

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