Nick Calio Will Pilot Airline Lobby

Posted November 29, 2010 at 3:00pm

Updated: 5:30 p.m.

The Air Transport Association of America has tapped Republican insider Nick Calio, who is Citigroup Inc.’s chief lobbyist, as its next president and CEO.

Calio, who was President George W. Bush’s chief Congressional liaison, will replace Jim May, who has led the airline lobby for the past eight years. Calio will officially join the trade group on Jan. 1.

The Ohio native has big goals for the trade group. His vision, he said, includes making the ATA a “pre-eminent association” in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an industry that’s done a lot to right itself,” Calio said in an interview Monday. “But it is looking to find a clearer path to sustained profitability, and that path is cluttered, I would say, with a lot of taxes, a lot of regulation, inadequate and inefficient infrastructure and inadequate access to international markets.”

Calio said he wants to clarify the group’s mission and expand its international reach. He also said he wants to grow the association’s political action committee.

“That’s something I talked to all the CEOs about,” Calio said. “Any corporation or trade association has to have a political action committee that is viable, and it’s just a matter of being part of the political process and being part of the political life support system for people that are supportive of you on policy matters.”

So far, he is declining to discuss specific changes that he will make to the ATA’s internal and external lobbying team.

“I’ve got to go in [and] learn the operations, learn the staff,” he said. “I’ve got to learn the issues in depth and then figure out what, if anything, needs to be done to do what I want to do.” Calio declined to discuss whether he would bring any of his Citigroup team to the ATA.

“I haven’t even thought of that,” he said.

ATA board Chairman Glenn Tilton called Calio the right person for the job at a critical time for the airline industry.

“A recognized leader in Washington and other world capitals, Nick has a record of success in managing complex issues and working collaboratively with people at the highest levels both in the private and public sectors,” Tilton, chairman of the board of United Continental Holdings Inc., said in a statement. “His leadership skills and reputation for integrity on both sides of the aisle make him uniquely suited to head ATA.”

PAC Man

The ATA’s PAC has suffered in recent years. After contributing nearly $105,000 to federal candidates during the 2006 election cycle, the airline industry’s PAC has dropped precipitously, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The ATA contributed about $50,000 and less than $20,000 during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, respectively.

The group’s lobbying spending has also dropped over the past couple of years.

The ATA spent about $5.8 million and $4.9 million on lobbying in 2008 and 2009, respectively, according to Senate lobbying disclosure records. So far this year, the trade association has spent nearly $3.4 million on lobbying. The ATA’s stable of outside lobbyists includes Capitol Tax Partners, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Russell & Barron, Morhard & Associates, and the Cormac Group.

The ATA’s lobbying budget is nearly on par with Citigroup’s spending in Washington. The bank invested $5.5 million in 2009 on lobbying and has spent more than $4.1 million so far this year. Still, Calio is expected to receive a bump in compensation, though he declined to discuss his salaries.

May’s compensation package was nearly $1.5 million in 2008, according to the most recent publicly available 990 tax form.

May, who served as executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters before joining the ATA, led the airline association through a challenging period. The industry struggled following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has continued to deal with the economic downturn. Industry lobbyists credit May with leading a successful coalition effort to stop oil speculation.

Transition Team

The lobbying campaign, which pitted the airline industry against big banks, was ultimately successful in reining in financial institutions’ ability to take out big positions, or stakes, on oil futures.

Tilton praised May’s leadership. “We thank Jim for his tireless leadership and commitment during some of the most difficult years this industry has ever faced,” Tilton said in a statement.

May called the decision to leave mutual, but he said he hasn’t decided his next venture. “Stay tuned,” he said. “I’m talking to a number of people.”

He added, “Oh my goodness sakes, no, I’m not the retiring type.”

Calio, who initially talked with the ATA in August, had also been rumored as a possible contender to lead the Business Roundtable following John Castellani’s departure to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Calio said that while he didn’t want to leave Citigroup during the financial crisis, he says the bank is in a better place.

“The company is profitable again; it’s positioned well,” Calio said. “While I didn’t feel it was a good thing, or the right thing to leave during the crisis, this came along and the more I looked at it, the more I talked to the CEOs, who are all mostly younger than me, the more excited I got about the job and the opportunity.”