Evidence mounting that instead of serving public interest, government officials are taking orders from powerful airline industry while consumers suffer

Dan Elwell is the Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency that up until now, has been respected worldwide for its leadership in civil aviation safety. But before Mr. Elwell joined the Trump Administration, he served as senior vice president for Safety, Security and Operations for Airlines for America (A4A), the powerful lobbying arm of the airline industry, which is used to getting its way, every time.

Instead of keeping our skies friendly through agency actions such as certifying the safety of aircraft, monitoring developments that require government intervention to protect passengers, or taking preventive measures to ensure accidents don’t happen again, it appears that Mr. Elwell is busy helping the airlines get everything they want, no matter what the cost might be to the taxpayers who pay his salary.

In fact, during the very same period that Mr. Elwell has been in government, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the parent agency over the FAA, has withdrawn, delayed or postponed a number of important consumer safety and air travel protections. And they happen to be the same protections that were near the top of the powerful U.S. airlines’ wish list, something Mr. Elwell was very familiar with.

The only way to know for sure whether Mr. Elwell used his position inappropriately, if not illegally, is through access to his emails and calendars. It is a routine request made of people entrusted by taxpayers to serve the interests of the public, and not the privileged few.

In June 2018, Democracy Forward, a non-profit public interest group formed to expose corruption in the executive branch of government, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the email and calendar data, and neither the DOT nor the FAA has responded, in clear violation of federal law. So, what’s he hiding?

Democracy Forward wants to know what involvement Mr. Elwell and his industry cronies had in the breathtaking rollbacks of popular consumer protections including:

  • Eliminating the “refund rule” that requires airlines to refund passengers’ baggage fees if the airline lost their bags
  • Stopping efforts to take action against airlines that are blocking the easy, side-by-side online comparison-shopping sites that consumers increasingly say they want to use, often exclusively
  • Delaying a wheelchair rule designed to protect travelers

Since the DOT and FAA refuse to cooperate, Democracy Forward filed suit against the agencies in federal court.

On March 27, 2019, ProPublica reported on emails that detailed how Mr. Elwell was receiving direction from airline lobbyists he used to work with, and how they expected him to be their inside guy, helping push through policy outcomes the airlines wanted – and on their timetable – even though they were outside the jurisdiction of the FAA Administrator and would harm average consumers. 

Mr. Elwell provided first class service to special interests that the average taxpayer could only dream about. And Mr. Elwell did it when he was supposed to be focused on safety, an area where much of the confidence the public has in the FAA has been lost following two deadly crashes with the Boeing 737 MAX.  In fact, for the first time, some countries are saying they’ll do their own certification and not defer to the FAA as they’ve done for decades.

While airline lobbyists are paid by airlines to advocate for the airlines, those serving in positions in government, where salaries are funded by hard-working American taxpayers, are there to serve in the public’s interest in a manner that is transparent, open, ethical and democratic.  In most cases, existing law prohibits political appointees, like Mr. Elwell, from participating in policy decisions involving a former employer or client, which sounds like what Mr. Elwell has been and continues to do.

The ProPublica story includes multiple examples of cozy, speed-dial relationships between Mr. Elwell and airline lobbyists he used to work with, exposing the degree of help and service he was providing them while major aviation disasters were happening.  And after the world expressed shock and outrage over the violent, bloody removal of a United passenger from an aircraft because he refused to give up a seat to an airline crew member, Mr. Elwell praised the airline’s handling of the situation, a position the vast majority of the country – and the world – did not share. 

To learn more about Democracy Forward’s pursuit of FAA Administrator Dan Elwell’s information, click here.