By Walker Davis
June 13, 2017

Last Monday, President Trump announced his support for air traffic control privatization, which would remove this responsibility from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In the months leading up to this announcement, several airlines and airline industry groups in favor of privatization hired lobbyists with ties to the administration, including a former member of President Trump’s own transition team.

In March, the firm Whitmer & Worrall registered to lobby on behalf of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, a member of a Airlines for America (A4A), a powerful airline trade association that has spent millions on lobbying while pushing for privatization. One of the firm’s founding partners, Martin Whitmer, served for several months on the president’s transition team, in charge of “transportation and infrastructure.” A second group backing privatization, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) also enlisted the services of Whitmer & Worrall a month earlier.

According to the firm’s first quarter filings, Mr. Whitmer lobbied Congress on “issues related to air traffic control (ATC) reform” and “issues related to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)” on behalf of both clients during the first quarter of this year. While quarterly filings by Whitmer & Worrall indicate that Mr. Whitmer did not lobby the administration directly over this period, disclosures covering lobbying since March have not been filed yet.

An organizational chart of the presidential transition team made public days after the election listed Mr. Whitmer as the individual in charge of implementing “Transport & Infrastructure” policy, a role noted in his bio on the lobbying firm’s site. “Mr. Whitmer most recently served on President Donald Trump’s Transition Team for transportation policy implementation as team-lead from September 2016 through November 2016,” the bio says. In November, Politico cited Mr. Whitmer as an example of a lobbyist whose work on the transition seemed to violate an early version of the transition team’s Code of Ethical Conduct. In mid-November, Vice President Mike Pence officially took over the transition team and removed all the lobbyists on it. Lobbying disclosures show Mr. Whitmer returned to lobbying on transportation issues within weeks.

Whitmer & Worrall is not the only Trump-tied firm that lobbied for airline interests ahead of the president’s announcement. Ballard Partners registered to lobby on behalf of another A4A member airline, American Airlines, in February. The firm’s president, Brian Ballard, represented the Trump Organization in Florida for years and was a fundraiser for the Trump campaign. He opened a Washington, DC office only after President Trump’s inauguration.

According to the firm’s first quarter filing, Ballard lobbied the “White House Office” and Departments of Transportation and State on “government policies and regulations” related to aviation during the first three months of this year. Representatives from American Airlines, Atlas Air, and A4A were all present as President Trump announced his support for the policy the groups sought.

The airline industry also has a cozy relationship with a key member in Congress. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who introduced the privatization bill, has been in a romantic relationship with one of A4A’s vice presidents for several years, prompting questions about ethics and influence. Last summer two of Rep. Shuster’s top committee staff registered to lobby on behalf of A4A, while more recently, A4A discreetly backed a super PAC defending Rep. Shuster against a challenger who accused him of being too close to the airline industry.

The airline industry’s close connections to key lawmakers shows how, when it comes to special interest influence, the scandal is often what’s legal. Mr. Whitmer’s transportation industry clients may have more victories on the horizon as the Trump administration continues to roll out its infrastructure initiatives. Last month, Mr. Whitmer appeared at a National Asphalt Pavement Association membership luncheon to give a “Legislative Update” on the “Trump Infrastructure Plan.”

UPDATE: On June 20, 2017 The Hill reported that Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said that the Committee will not include President Trump’s privatization proposal in its plans for the FAA, dealing a setback to the powerful airline industry. On June 21, according to Bloomberg BNARep. Shuster announced he would release a draft of his House Transportation and Infrastructure privatization bill, while Rep. Thune will release a competing, more traditional Senate FAA bill. Both bills will be considered following the July 4 Congressional recess.