Usually when we talk about 'too close for comfort' we're talking about economy-class.
Rep. Bill Shuster, Chair of the Transportation Committee and Shelley Rubino, VP for Global Government "Affairs" disclosed their relationship last week.
This time it's about lobbyists and politicans.
Last week, Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chief anti-passenger legislator - whose main campaign contributors are United and American Airlines - revealed that he's been in a 'personal relationship' with a top lobbyist for the airline industry for the past year.
Not until investigated by the media did Mr. Shuster disclose this relationship with the airline lobbyist.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Do you see the conflict of interest here? We do.
Politico broke the story last Thursday about this influential lawmaker's dalliance with the VP for Global Government Affairs for Airlines for America (referred to as A4A), Shelley Rubino.
Why should you care? Simple, because passenger rights legislation appears to have been tainted by this liaison with a lobbyist that spends millions trying to manipulate his committee.
The Traveling Public Always Loses In These Situations
"When there's politically incestuous relationships between a regulated industry and the leadership that oversees it, I don't see how any legislation could come out that would not be tainted in some way," said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a member of the Federal Aviation Administration's Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee to the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.
He said Mr. Shuster has shown partiality to the industry at the expense of consumers, and that he wields so much power that other committee members seem afraid to oppose him.
Mr. Shuster, he said, is allowing the industry broad latitude in writing FAA legislation, while he has ignored input from others, including Mr. Hudson's organization, which proposed 30 reforms.
"So far we have seen no hearings on any passenger-rights legislation. We've been told by some committee members they wouldn't even introduce anything because it might displease the chairman," Mr. Hudson said.
Pay To Play
1. Close personal ties between Shuster and A4A coincide with their nearly identical policy views and goals:
As of the end of 2014, A4A was lobbying on the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014. Shuster personally introduced this legislation that would hide the true cost of airfares.
This is not the first time Shuster's personal life has been found to have issues pointing towards involvement with other female lobbyists.
He was one of a half-dozen Republican congressmen who were scolded by House Minority Leader John Boehner in 2010 to keep their distance from the lady lobbyists who prowl Capitol Hill.
Shuster got divorced last year after more than 27 years of marriage.
2. The House Transportation Committee: the new 'Mile-High Club'?
The connections between Shuster's office and committee with A4A appear to run very deep.
Rubino is listed by the trade association as one of its lobbyists in disclosure forms filed with Congress. The association paid her nearly $460,000 in salary and benefits in 2013, according to tax records.
Shuster recently hired Chris Brown, A4A's vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, to be staff director on the subcommittee that writes FAA bills.
Shuster's personal office chief of staff, Eric Burgeson, is married to Christine Burgeson, senior vice president of government relations at A4A. Shuster is reputed to be close personal friends with Nick Calio, A4A president and CEO.
Shuster also has expressed support for the US airline industry's stance against the Persian Gulf air carriers in the current 'Open Skies' argument.
Shuster has also spoken out against new taxes on the airline industry. FlyersRights has urged taxing the billions of dollars airlines earn from baggage and other fees.
3. A4A and the airlines have contributed significantly to Shuster
A4A and its employees "contributed more than $20,000" to Shuster (making him the only congressman A4A made the maximum contribution to). The airlines and other companies comprising A4A's membership have together "given hundreds of thousands more to Shuster throughout his career." In total, A4A spent $6.8 million on lobbying efforts in 2014.
4. Like Father, Like Son: Shuster's father resigned over similar issues
Bud Shuster, Bill's father, was also a former chairman of the Transportation Committee. Following an investigation, the Ethics Committee found Bud Shuster engaged in a "pattern and practice" of allowing his former top aide Ann Eppard - a transportation lobbyist - to appear before him on behalf of her clients after she left his staff.
There is a one-year ban on ex-employees lobbying the members or committees they worked for. Bud allegedly accepted gifts from and gave preferential access to Eppard.
Following the Ethics Committee investigation, Bud resigned from Congress in 2001 but denied any wrongdoing. Bill won his father's seat after his resignation.
Tossing Aside The "Appearance of Impropriety"
A philosophical conundrum: Is mutual impropriety, impropriety at all? Apparently not under the House ethics rules drafted by Congress.
The conflict-of-interest rules don't prohibit family members, including spouses, from lobbying lawmakers, although members are barred from taking action on an issue in which they have a direct financial stake. Other romantic relationships aren't addressed in the House Ethics Manual.
The airlines like to convey that sardine conditions are a "passenger's choice".
They say they are offering "choice" to the economy customers who care more about price than being able to sit comfortably in the seat.
But the truth is that squeezing more and more passengers into limited space, while shrinking lavatories, is for the sake of cost-controls and carrier profits.
And yes, it's likely the CEO of American, United or Delta have ever flown in the middle seat in coach.
In February, FlyersRights held a media advisory on petitions to reduce airfares and end airline exemptions from consumer protection & antitrust laws.
Our Passenger Bill of Rights 2.0 calls for the FAA to set standards guaranteeing each passenger adequate leg, hip, and shoulder room. FAA currently has no standards limiting how small seats can be or how tightly they may be placed.
Passengers are not powerless to stop the trend to smaller seats and overcrowded airplanes. You can insist the FAA act now to set standards, and you can have a say in what those standards will be.
It was passenger pressure that forced the DOT to set reasonable rules on tarmac delays.
We are commited to solutions for promoting airline passenger policies that forward first and foremost the safety of all passengers while not imposing unrealistic economic burdens that adversely affect airline profitability or create exhorbitant ticket price increases.
All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:
Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.
Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.
Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.
Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.
Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.
Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.
Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.
The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.
Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.
Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.
Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners.