How Delta Plays Politics in Washington: Who Needs Eric Cantor?

ATLANTA ( TheStreet) -- Maybe, finally, an airline is able to play politics with the big boys.

For decades, the airline industry has been a weak sister in Washington politics. Airlines may be widely known, but they have generally lacked political clout, a shortcoming best illustrated by the continuing increases in the industry's federally imposed tax and fee burden. On an average ticket, for a $300 domestic round trip, that burden has risen to 20%, up from 7% in 1972, according to Airlines for America, or A4A, the industry trade group.

In recent years, a single airline, Delta (DAL), has taken the lead in fighting back in Washington, speaking out far more than any other carrier. Additionally, CEO Richard Anderson has worked closely with the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 50,000 pilots at 31 airlines, pilots and with A4A.

On Tuesday, Anderson will speak to the Aero Club of Washington, a club of aviation enthusiasts. The speech has been sold out for weeks.

Anderson will speak two weeks after the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor drew attention to one of Delta's key battles. Cantor has been a leader in seeking to maintain funding for the Export-Import Bank, which guarantees loans to foreign buyers of U.S. products. Boeing (BA) customers have been the biggest beneficiaries of the purchases the bank finances. Those customers often compete with U.S. airlines.

But Cantor has also been a Delta ally. He had been seeking a compromise, hoping to please Boeing, Delta, mainstream Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. His loss underscores how tough it is to please everyone.

The bank financing issue is closely related to another key aviation issue, the rapid growth of the three Middle East airlines -- Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar. The three are backed by wealthy governments in the UAE and Qatar. Yet Emirates and Etihad have benefited from Export-Import Bank financing, which theoretically is provided to buyers who cannot secure financing elsewhere, and Etihad has benefited from a recently opened Customs and Border Protection station in its Abu Dhabi hub, enabling pre-clearance for passengers to the U.S., which is very rarely provided.

Three weeks ago, United (UAL) CEO Jeff Smisek told an investor conference that U.S. government officials "don't have the teeth, nor do they have the desire" to serve the interests of U.S. airlines over those of Middle East carriers. But generally, it has been Delta that has been outspoken in publicly raising such issues.

"Delta has been out there on its own (because) it got its merger done first," said a Washington lobbyist, involved in aviation issues, who asked not to be named. "It got its house in order and now it has the luxury to take a bigger view on issues."

Delta's Washington emergence has not been simply a matter of the airline speaking out. It has also accompanied by changes at the industry's two most prominent Washington trade groups.

ALPA's visibility has grown since Lee Moak was elected president in 2011. Moak previously headed Delta's ALPA chapter. He has pushed ALPA to the forefront of issues confronting pilots and the airline industry. He remains a Delta pilot, and he has a close relationship with Anderson.

In a 2012 interview with TheStreet, Anderson called Moak "an incredible leader" and "on a personal level, an exceptional individual," who has good relationships with several Delta executives. "His father was a Marine sergeant and Lee was a Marine fighter pilot, so when you're talking about someone with discipline and determination, you're talking about Lee Moak," Anderson said.

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