Cox News Service
WASHINGTON -- Delta Air Lines Inc. hopes to turn its frequent fliers into fervent lobbyists.
In e-mails being sent this week, Delta is urging roughly 2 million SkyMiles members to contact Congress. The Atlanta-based airline wants to build political support for its side in a battle over how to pay for upgrading the nation's air traffic control system and airports.
"You can help make a difference!" the e-mail says. "Please contact your Congressional representatives and ask them to: Quit forcing you to subsidize corporate jets through the current unfair ticket tax."
For fliers who fail to check their e-mail, the August edition of Sky Magazine, available in Delta planes, features a full-page essay with a similar message. And for passengers who don't read Sky, Delta will be making another pitch via video on all planes with in-flight entertainment systems, starting Sept. 1.
In its messages, Delta argues that a growing flock of competitors -- "corporate jets, fractional jets, air-taxis and very light jets" -- should no longer get a "free ride" while airline passengers disproportionately pay excise taxes to support the air traffic control system.
"Delta has an active and loyal customer base," company spokesman Kent Landers said, and when Delta asks people to get involved politically, "it can be very effective."
Landers noted that earlier this summer, the carrier prompted more than 60,000 passengers to sign an electronic petition submitted to the Department of Transportation. It urged DOT to help Delta get permission to fly from Atlanta to China.
Late last year, Delta also spurred many customers to tell officials in Washington they opposed a proposed takeover by US Airways Group Inc.
Landers said other major carriers are launching campaigns to get customers to contact Congress about changing the tax structure that funds the aviation system.
People involved with general aviation - those flights not involved in scheduled airline or military operations - are unhappy about the major carriers' ability to make political pitches to millions of frequent fliers, as well as captive audiences on planes.
"We're not going to be able to match their lobbying and PR capabilities," said Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a Washington-based coalition representing general aviation pilots, rural and agriculture groups and others opposed to overhauling the existing tax system.
Shilad said airlines have huge budgets, along with advertising savvy, to promote their interests. "The in-flight propaganda is just one more example of that," she said.
But the alliance hopes to be more effective in drumming up political support because its members are more motivated, she said. "We do have thousands of members who are taking their messages to Congress," she said. "This is a very broad coalition."
At issue is the funding method to support aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration's current budget authorization will expire with the fiscal year on Sept. 30. So Congress is trying to authorize a new five-year spending plan to dramatically upgrade airports and the air traffic control system.
Planned improvements will cost more than $20 billion. To help raise that kind of money, a Senate bill seeks to impose a $25 fee on each flight, regardless of the aircraft's size.
Such a user fee would shift more of the financial burden to general aviation and away from the passengers who support various excise taxes. Commercial airlines are backing the Senate approach. So does FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who this week told a congressional panel studying aviation taxes: "Business jets contribute very little tax revenue despite often using virtually the same airspace and services as a commercial airliner."
She said airlines pay more than 90 percent of the taxes and fees to fund the air traffic control system, but drive only 66 percent of the costs.
But general aviation supporters say the fee would create unreasonable administrative burdens and costs for pilots of smaller aircraft. Many officials from rural areas say they fear their communities would lose air service if pilots had to pay another $25 for every flight.
On the Web:
Delta's campaign: www.smartskies.org/delta
Alliance for Aviation Across America: www.aviationacrossamerica.org
Marilyn Geewax's e-mail address is mgeewaxcoxnews.com
Story Filed By Cox Newspapers
For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service