Up in the Air

Posted February 27, 2007 at 6:01pm

Experiencing some professional turbulence? At least you’re not Robert Land.

As JetBlue’s only man inside the Beltway, Land has had the unenviable task of single-handedly explaining the discount flier’s recent meltdowns to lawmakers while trying to beat back their attempts to impose new regulations on the industry. [IMGCAP(1)]

The trouble started Feb. 14, when an ice storm in the Northeast scrambled travel schedules. At New York’s JFK International Airport, JetBlue’s hub, nine of the carrier’s planes got pinned down on the tarmac, forcing some passengers to sit on the runway for more than 10 hours. The trouble spilled into the following week, with JetBlue forced to cancel more than 1,000 flights to get back on schedule.

Land went to work Feb. 15, the morning after the crisis erupted, paying visits to the Transportation committees and also calling on officials at the Department of Transportation. He walked staffers through a chronology of what had happened the day before — explaining how JetBlue, relying on what proved to be erroneous weather reports that showed the storm clearing, kept planes queued in the hopes of getting them off the ground. And, like other executives at the airline, he piled on the apologies.

“Looking back, we were a little too aggressive trying to get our customers where they wanted to go,” said Land, who served as assistant Transportation secretary under former President Bill Clinton before joining JetBlue at its outset eight years ago.

JetBlue has pledged to spend $30 million in vouchers, refunds and other costs to recover from the events and has issued its own passenger bill of rights to guarantee there will not be a repeat performance.

But the controversy already has prompted lawmakers to action, with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introducing a measure setting mandatory guidelines for airlines and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) to follow suit this week. Industry sources said some version is likely to be included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization set to move this year.

Land, like others hoping to head off the legislation, stressed the airline already has taken corrective steps and is best equipped to handle future problems on its own.

“We think we know how best to make up for our mistakes,” he said. “That’s the message we’ve been sending to the Hill: No one has more to lose than we do, because regardless of what Congress does or doesn’t do, people have a choice to make when they fly.”

Several airline lobbyists said K Streeters, smelling blood, have been hurling themselves at JetBlue since its problems erupted. Land, officially the company’s senior vice president for government affairs, said that while JetBlue “has been looking for key people to join our team in different positions on an ongoing basis,” it has not made any moves yet to add lobbying muscle, either internally or externally.

Lift Off? Speaking of canceled flights, lobbyists and other supporters of Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) who had hoped to join the freshman for a viewing of a space shuttle launch in Florida will have to rearrange their schedules.

A hail storm earlier this week damaged an external tank on the shuttle Atlantis and NASA officials are expected to delay the planned March 15 launch as a result.

For $2,300 for an individual, or $5,000 from a political action committee, trip participants were set to fly to the Sunshine State in two weeks for a three-day jaunt that included the launch. For the occasion, Lampson’s team had rented the Indian River Queen, a paddle-wheel boat that was set to cruise up the Banana River to within about five miles of the launch site.

(Aside from the novel view, the boat placed the event within the law. The official viewing area for Kennedy Space Center launches is on federal land, making it off-limits for political fundraisers).

In case of any last-minute problems with the launch, the crew had the boat reserved for two more morning cruises.

For those less enthusiastic about space flight, or paddle boats, trip organizers bought a package of tickets for a spring training game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees.

“It’s a relatively portable event,” said a source close to the event who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everybody knows not to plan too far ahead for it.”

The source said final decisions on the trip will be made once NASA announces its plan for the launch.

Coming Out. Add one more name to the long list of politicians that want some K Street cash. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who is mulling whether he wants to give up his plush office at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld for the Oval Office, is having his first Washington, D.C., fundraiser next week. The money goes to his coffers at the Thompson Presidential Exploratory Committee — 2008.

The event is sponsored by Barbour Griffith & Rogers lobbyist Robert Wood, who was Thompson’s chief of staff at HHS, and others around town, said Darrin Schmitz of the committee, known as “Tommy 2008.”

“This is really a way for friends, colleagues and former staff to show their support,” Schmitz said, adding that the former Wisconsin governor expects to raise about $50,000 from 75 attendees.

Thompson, a Republican, will hold court at The Caucus Room on March 8. “Gold level” contributions cost $500, while joining the “green level” will set you back $1,000, according to an invitation.

K Street Moves. The Livingston Group, the firm founded by former Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), has followed the trend of hiring Democrats. Stacie Walters, a former legislative aide to Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), has joined the firm as a principal. “At a time when there are new Democrat members of Congress, who are dealing with multiple issues, her expertise on several matters, along with her relationships on the Hill, will be a tremendous asset to our clients,” Livingston said in a statement.

• Another Democrat has landed at Artemis Strategies: Ryan Modlin, a one-time staffer for House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), has signed on as vice president. Modlin also has worked in the government affairs division for Chrysler and with the American Automotive Manufacturers Association.