The head of the airline industry's trade group canceled congressional testimony he was scheduled to give this week opposing a Bush administration proposal for a new airport passenger fee after senior aides to Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner telephoned top airline executives to protest his appearance, industry sources said yesterday.
Robert Aaronson, president of the Air Transport Association, already had distributed a draft copy of the remarks he planned to deliver before the House Public Works subcommittee on aviation when he abruptly canceled his appearance. Sources said the statement described the proposal to allow local governments to raise money for airports by charging a user's fee to passengers as flawed, and said that the industry opposed it.
Asked at the hearing about Aaronson's cancellation, Skinner said calls made by his office involved "no threats, no coercion, no nothing."
Several airlines said they agreed with Skinner and that they had felt no coercion. But some industry sources, who asked not to be named, said yesterday that they considered calls made by a Transportation Department official closely involved in reviewing the awarding of lucrative new Pacific Rim air routes to be improper.
"What they did was highly unusual and it was stupid on their part," one airline official said. "Sam's Chicago-style politics is such that he has almost no qualms about littering the landscape with twisted arms."
Skinner, a former U.S. attorney and transit official in Chicago, and the official involved, Jeffrey Shane, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs, said international routes were never mentioned during the phone calls.
They said there was never a suggestion that airline positions on the proposed airport fees -- called passenger facility charges (PFCs) and seen by the Bush administration as a way of shifting a greater share of the tax burden to local and state governments -- would affect any department decisions.
Shane said it is perfectly proper for him to remain in contact with airlines, despite his role in reviewing routes. "I can't isolate myself from the industry and still be an effective adviser to the secretary of transportation."
Officials of some airlines -- including two locked in a battle for a Chicago-Tokyo route -- said they saw nothing wrong with the calls from Skinner's aides.
Larry M. Nagin, United's senior vice president for corporate and external affairs, said he considered a call from Kenneth Quinn, a Skinner counselor, to be routine. American's vice president for corporate communication, Bill Hindman, said chairman Robert Crandall considered a call from Shane to be "informational."
United and American were among at least five major airlines -- America West, Continental and Southwest were the others -- that sent letters to the subcommittee supporting the administration proposal after they were contacted. United and American said they had decided to support the PFCs before the telephone calls.
An ATA spokesman, Stephen Hayes, said, "We did not testify because we simply did not have a consensus on the PFC issue among our members."
Shane, who made most of the calls to airline officials beginning with Crandall, will not make the final decision on the routes. In an attempt to isolate such decisions from political influence, a decision will be made by a senior career official, Pat Murphy, deputy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs. But Shane will have the power to send any final recommendation back to Murphy for further review.
Shane said the airline officials he talked to were aware that he could not affect the outcome based on political considerations. If he had attempted to do so, he said, "frankly they would have fallen out of their chairs laughing."
Shane said he called Crandall first because the independent American chairman "told us a couple of months ago they were going to become mavericks in the airline industry and support the PFC."
Crandall reiterated his support, Shane said, and suggested Shane call Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher was not available, but Shane said he talked to a vice president. He said he also talked to "people at the vice president level" at Northwest, USAir and TWA, all of whom said they opposed PFCs but would keep an open mind.