Hunting Lobby Kills New American Airlines Gun Rule

Posted October 9, 2007 at 6:18pm

The Washington, D.C., lobbying office of American Airlines is accustomed to calling on Congress to try to get what it wants out of the federal government.

But in a recent role reversal, Congress and a collection of gun-toting lobbyists came calling on American, lobbying the company to reverse a new gun policy it put in place for civilian air passengers.

Although no governmental rules or laws were involved, two lobbying organizations, the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, mobilized late last month when their members complained of a new corporate policy by American Airlines that would have banned civilian guns from checked luggage on American Airlines flights landing in Europe and Asia.

The ban, which began on Sept. 24, also would have hit African safari hunters because American Airlines planes routinely stop in Europe on the way to that continent.

The National Rifle Association and Safari Club International enlisted the help of Ogilvy Government Relations, including GOP lobbyist John Green, an avid hunter and longtime NRA lobbyist.

Merle Shepard, chairman of the government affairs committee for Safari Club International, said the lobbyists — and scores of miffed hunters — in turn put pressure on Members of Congress from Texas, where American Airlines is based.

These included GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Reps. Pete Sessions and Kay Granger.

The sportsmen also contacted American Airlines directly, as did at least one Member of Congress; Sessions’ communications director Emily Davis said her boss called William Ris, American Airlines senior vice president of government affairs. Sessions, Davis said, called after hearing from people with the Dallas Safari Club, the NRA and Safari Club International.

“It was a very cordial conversation,” Davis said. “American Airlines certainly recognized the importance of the issue.”

Not only that, but American Airlines decided to reverse its rule, thus allowing hunters to check their guns on all flights to Asia and Europe, except the United Kingdom, explained Tim Wagner, the Fort Worth, Texas-based spokesman for American Airlines.

Wagner said a number of American Airlines employees — including Ris and Kevin Cox, the airline’s vice president of corporate affairs — were involved in working with the NRA and SCI members. Ris could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Lobbyists who worked the issue from the hunters’ side said the American Airlines’ Washington, D.C., and Texas offices handled the matter sympathetically.

Although American Airlines still won’t allow hunters to check their guns if they’re flying to or through the United Kingdom, one lobbyist working on the matter said there is a meeting planned this week with NRA, SCI and UK officials.

The no-civilian gun policy came about in the first place because American Airlines was concerned it would be prohibited from transporting any firearms — including those for military personnel — because of strict guidelines, fines and “onerous policies” in the United Kingdom, Wagner said, adding that the airline in some cases already had paid British fines. Besides, he said, UK officials “were threatening that we couldn’t transport military firearms.

“We heard a lot from our customers, and our interaction with the NRA and SCI is what led us to modify our policy,” Wagner added.

Chris Cox, the chief lobbyist for the NRA, said it is common for hunters to fly to and through Europe and Asia for big hunting excursions. Cox himself said he recently returned from a hunting expedition in Botswana, catching a connecting flight to the African country through Frankfurt, Germany.

“We’re working proactively with our friends on Capitol Hill and the sporting community,” said Cox. “It’s still an ongoing issue, as other airlines have similar problems in England or other areas. This is something that’s going to very seriously impact hunting in their country and others.”

The NRA and SCI lobbyists said they were notified late in the process, after the policy already was going into effect — something their members found troubling.

“This happened during a big rush of hunting season,” said Sheppard of the SCI. He added that in most cases of a sweeping airline change to its firearms policy, an airline will alert such groups as the NRA and SCI. In this case, American Airlines did not, he said. “So we had people at the airports concerned that they couldn’t take their guns.”