Evaluating McCain and Obama on travel issues

The pollsters say there are still quite a few undecided voters out there, so if two wars and an economic crisis aren't enough to sway your opinion, maybe it's time to evaluate both candidates' views on travel and aviation.

It's easy to argue that how a president addresses the nation's economic woes directly affects the travel industry. As do a host of other campaign topics—national security, energy, global warming, employment, taxation and dozens more. But what follows is a rundown of specific travel and aviation issues, with the stated positions and track records of both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.

I contacted both campaigns and spoke to representatives but did not receive answers to specific questions I had e-mailed (though one of the candidates now floods my inbox with solicitations for donations). Many of the policies stated below are taken from the two campaign websites, as well as from voting records, public statements and media interviews. It should be noted that the Obama-Biden site offers a detailed section on travel and transportation, while the McCain-Palin site does not (see box at left).

The big picture

There is more evidence of how a President McCain would respond to travel issues than how a President Obama would. This is because McCain first entered the House of Representatives in 1983 and the Senate in 1987, while Obama entered the Senate in 2005, so the Republican candidate has a much longer track record of voting on aviation and travel issues. In addition, McCain served on three separate occasions as Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which includes oversight of key transportation sectors.

Geography would indicate both candidates are more than familiar with airline issues. Both McCain and Obama represent states in which airlines are headquartered: McCain hails from Arizona, home office of Phoenix-based US Airways (and America West prior to its merger with that carrier), while Obama is from Illinois, home of United's headquarters in Chicago. And Obama is quick to note Chicago is and always has been "one of the nation's major rail transportation hubs."

Both vice presidential candidates have ties to travel as well. Sen. Joe Biden is well known for supporting Amtrak, as well as for commuting between Delaware and Washington, D.C., via the rail line. Meanwhile, Gov. Sarah Palin hails from a state that is absolutely dependent upon civil aviation — Palin's husband Todd is a pilot and the owner of a Piper Cub — though it's not known how this might affect the Republican ticket's views on related issues.

Support and funding for rail

If there's one travel issue on which the two presidential candidates stand in stark opposition, it's support for the nation's rail lines and rail infrastructure.

While head of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain opposed funding for rail and singled out Amtrak as a symbol of government waste. In 2002, McCain stated: "Amtrak should be restructured to eliminate its reliance on the American taxpayers and to allow for its privatization." One year later, McCain proposed an alternative reauthorization bill for the rail line, saying, "I cannot support an approach which further postpones reform and calls for operating the same trains, over the same routes, with millions more in operating losses, and a continuing need for large infusions of capital from taxpayers."

Indeed, five years ago McCain tangled with the then-president of Amtrak, David Gunn, who famously suggested that if McCain wished to cut off funding for commuter rail, the Arizona senator should do the same for commuter airlines. The McCain campaign's website includes a section on "Reforming Our Transportation Sector," but there is no mention whatsoever of rail.

David Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, was quoted recently as saying: "McCain has consistently not been a supporter of Amtrak. His voting record in the Senate speaks for that." In July, Railway Age summed up both candidates' positions and noted the following: "In his position papers, McCain does not mention Amtrak, or any other form of intercity passenger rail service. His record indicates opposition to continued funding for Amtrak." Because of this history, many Amtrak and rail officials, railroad employees, and surface transportation proponents are bitter opponents of McCain's candidacy.

Obama's campaign site includes a lengthy section on high-speed rail, freight trains and Amtrak. The Democratic nominee supports development of high-speed rail networks across the country and "renewing the federal government's commitment to high-speed rail." The site states that Obama will "continue to fight for Amtrak funding and reform." Such initiatives would seem to be in keeping with his overall goal of meeting the demands of "our short- and long-term energy challenges."

In addition, Obama was co-sponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Innovation Act of 2007, designed to provide long-term federal funding to Amtrak. And as noted, Obama's running mate is one of the Senate's most outspoken supporters of Amtrak (Biden's son is also an Amtrak board member). One of Biden's specific concerns, however, is that the focus on aviation security has ignored the threats facing surface transportation. On his own website, he declares support for "increasing security for both passenger trains and trains carrying dangerous cargo."

Passenger rights and airline regulation

Advocates of passenger rights legislation are breaking down along party lines, with many hoping for Democratic wins for the White House as well as Congress. They believe a Senate majority would provide final support for the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 2007, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The so-called Boxer-Snowe Bill has received support from several consumer organizations (including Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports). Obama is a co-sponsor (along with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.); McCain is not.

Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, says her organization is not officially endorsing either candidate. But she makes her own views quite clear: "I'm very confident if Obama and Biden win, we'll get [passenger rights] legislation. If McCain wins, I'll be very discouraged. He is the wrong candidate on this issue."

Interestingly, during his own brief campaign for president, Biden was quite outspoken on the issue of passenger rights. In fact, last November his campaign issued a detailed statement on the steps he would take as president, including requiring airlines to accommodate passengers during delays and creating an Aviation Consumer Protection Commission.

Meanwhile, the subject of re-regulating the airline industry is no longer taboo, as I noted back in September. Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition (BTC), notes, "By most measures, the airline industry is not functioning well at all 30 years and 165 airline-failures after deregulation ... Insufficient regulation of the financial markets, as a root cause of the current financial crisis, will likely provide more support for those favoring some level of government intervention in the troubled airline industry." Neither candidate has directly addressed the issue of re-regulation.

Modernizing air traffic control

Back in May, the Travel Industry Association (TIA) released a survey of 1,003 air travelers that asserted "deep frustration" with the nation's aviation infrastructure prompted the cancellation of 41 million trips at a cost of $26 billion. Though some may question the extrapolation of such figures, there's no denying the sentiment behind the statistics: TIA found more than 60% of the respondents believe the air travel system is deteriorating, and much of that frustration is aimed at the nation's aging air traffic control system.

McCain is a former Navy pilot and one of his sons is an American Airlines pilot, so the Republican candidate is clearly conversant in ATC issues. Although he has not specifically addressed the issue during this campaign, in the past McCain has advocated shifting responsibility for ATC from Federal Aviation Administration employees to the private sector. Several years ago, the Reason Foundation reported McCain was in favor of privatizing ATC and in the Senate he declared that efforts to restrict "the conversion of any FAA facilities or functions from the Federal Government to the private sector" were "inappropriate and unnecessary."

Obama, on the other hand, maintains the FAA "has failed to work well with our nation's air traffic controllers, neglecting to treat them with the respect they deserve." His campaign says it will work with Congress to modernize ATC and Obama will direct the new FAA Administrator to "work cooperatively" with frontline controllers.

Not surprisingly, the union representing those frontline employees has backed Obama. Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), states that his organization hopes for a president " who will once again demand accountability and fairness in the FAA, restore collaboration with controllers, and recognize that a strong, fully-staffed, and respected controller workforce is essential in ensuring the safety of the traveling public."

Perhaps the earliest endorsement from any sector of the travel industry was the Air Travelers Association's backing of Obama back in January, long before it was certain he would even be his party's nominee. David Stempler, the organization's president, stated: "The best hope for airline passengers to solve the current aviation crisis involving congestion, delay, and dangerous safety, near-collision problems is to quickly get in place a new, GPS-based, next generation, air traffic control system, called 'NextGen' ... We believe that Barack Obama will enable us to have safety-based, GPS systems for airliners, sooner than any other candidate for President."

Airline maintenance outsourcing and FAA oversight

Since an investigation I conducted for Consumer Reports in 2007, I've been strongly attuned to the subject of airline maintenance outsourcing and the FAA's lack of oversight. Now this issue appears to be reaching the presidential level.

As BTC's Mitchell says, "Both presidential campaigns need to reevaluate their travel industry policies in light of painful and relevant insights gained from the financial crisis. Chief among lessons-learned is that ... lower safety and security standards, and woefully inadequate FAA oversight of outsourced aircraft maintenance here in the U.S. and in foreign countries, will result in loss of life."

Obama has directly addressed the topic with a campaign statement vowing to "appoint a qualified FAA Administrator who will not play politics with the safety of American travelers and he will work with Congress to strengthen the FAA's mandate."

For many, the outsourcing issue has evolved into a labor issue. Certainly there is no denying the overseas jobs component, but the bigger concern is the safety and security of the nation's aviation system. Even so, because of Obama's opposition to maintenance outsourcing, he has received key endorsements from labor organizations, while McCain has been attacked by those same groups.

Earlier this year, Obama wrote to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters: "The practice of outsourcing aircraft maintenance overseas raises security concerns and pits our skilled mechanics making a middle class living against less skilled, less well protected workers abroad."

Subsequently the Teamsters endorsed Obama and have claimed that McCain has "opposed routine FAA safety inspections of foreign repair stations that perform maintenance on American commercial aircraft." In addition, the Teamsters said Obama opposes and McCain supports foreign ownership of U.S. airlines.

The AFL-CIO also opposes McCain and provides legislative details on McCain's voting record on aviation issues dating back to the 1980s. McCain's campaign site does not address any of these issues specifically.

Promoting travel and inbound tourism

The Travel Industry Association states its number one priority is to drive more international business to the United States. "While we are not endorsing either candidate, we are doing what we can to raise the noise level on travel issues," says TIA's Freeman.

So why not support one of the candidates? "Neither has stepped up and given these issues the attention they deserve," says Freeman. But although he diplomatically notes TIA's "confidence" in both men, Freeman says there is one issue that separates them: "Obama has been particularly helpful by supporting the Travel Promotion Act."

This legislation, S. 1661, is described as "a bill to communicate United States travel policies and improve marketing and other activities designed to increase travel in the United States from abroad." The Act would establish the Corporation for Travel Promotion, funded by borrowing from the Treasury, assessments on private travel firms, and new fees charged to users of the Visa Waiver Program. Obama currently is among 51 senators—Democrats and Republicans—supporting the measure.

Freeman says travel executives sat down with McCain several months ago and "the tenor of the conversation was fantastic." While McCain expressed concerns over differences in the House and Senate versions of this bill, Freeman says TIA is optimistic the Arizona senator eventually will support the measure as well.

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Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.