Delta Airlines, the 2nd largest US passenger airline and one of the oldest (1929), announced that it was withdrawing from the airlines trade association, A4A. That organization has seen its number of members decrease, mostly from mergers and bankruptcy, but this is the first resignation by a viable carrier. The reported reason is that DL disagrees with that lobbying group’s position on Privatization of the FAA and lack of action by it on the Gulf Carriers’ alleged violation of the Open Skies agreement.
The Air Transportation Association, now known as A4A, was formed in 1936 to “advocate for America’s airlines as models of safety, customer service and environmental responsibility, and as the indispensable network that drives nearly $1.5 trillion in U.S. economic activity and more than 11 million U.S. jobs.” This major US scheduled passenger and cargo airlines association has been THE ADVOCATE for its members at the White House, on Capitol, before both Houses of the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, DoT, FAA, State, DHS, TSA, CPB and all of the Executive Departments, as needed.
The DL spokesperson said that “the $5 million that Delta pays in annual dues to A4A can be better used to invest in employees and products to further enhance the Delta experience, and to support what we believe is a more efficient way of communicating in Washington on issues that are important to Delta customers and employees.” That sounds like it was a cost-saving move, but the greater communications reference may suggest something else.
The current A4A president and chief executive officer is Nicholas E. Calio. He was selected in 2011 when the Chair of the association was Richard Anderson, who was then and is still now Delta’s CEO. Mr. Calio’s resume included jobs as President George H. W. Bush’s Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs, Vice-President of The Duberstein Group and as the Senior Vice-President of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and Citigroup’s head of government relations. Clearly, he was selected for his political acumen and clout—not for his knowledge of airlines and their operations.
Since taking over at the association, Calio has focused on what he does best. Hiring seven highly regarded lobbyists, he has grown the association’s presence on the Hill and the Executive Branch and attacked with a “consensus” agenda. Ironically, Calio issued a statement about Anderson’s role, as follows:
“Under Richard’s chairmanship, we were able to change the way A4A operates, moving it to a consensus-driven organization that has the ability to speak with one voice…We thank Richard and all of the many Delta employees who serve on A4A councils and committees who actively work to address issues that affect the entire industry and our customers.”
Associations provide their best return on the member dues when there is “leverage;” that is, when the association’s work in Washington effectively moves issues of greatest interest to all of its members. Ideally, the impact of the association reduces the need for each airline to hire people to communicate its message to the target audiences.
Political issues like ATC Privatization, the Gulf Carriers and even taxes are not readily subject to a single view to which all A4A can agree. Size, age of fleet, strength of balance sheets, route structure, hubs and other factors contribute to a centrifugal force.
There are several issues, for which common positions could support, like airport security, customs, environmental policy and the like. The leading candidate for association leverage is safety. It is, or should be, an industry rule—airlines should not compete on safety. If one airline creates a solution which will improve the margin of safety, then all should solve.
Coincidentally, the FAA is a global leader in Safety Management Systems. This data driven discipline collects information which facilitates trend analysis; the larger the data base, the predictions will be statistically more reliable. Sharing of information and collective work on solutions will make American safety record even better. For example, Boeing recently created new software which collects numbers and can forward them to the appropriate uses. If one airline finds an application which further enhances the quality of these statistics, all of their passengers benefit.
The FAA is an important regulator and links between these government experts and their industry counterparts adds to the knowledge between both parties. If each of the US airlines sends an individual person to walk around the FAA’s offices, a traffic jam will occur. If on the other hand a representative of all of those certificate holders makes the same exchange, the communication improves. Better insight into operational limitations and better comprehension of the regulatory goals both mean increased safety.
Perhaps one of the reasons why DL is resigning from A4A is that the efficiency of communication with the FAA is degrading while the emphasis on the Hill is increasing? Just saying.