Congressman May Give His Lobbyist Girlfriend’s Employer Control Over Air Traffic’s Billions

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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President Donald Trump’s plan to hand over the U.S. air traffic control system to a non-profit entity closely mirrors legislation crafted by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bill Shuster.

Shuster’s plan gave partial control of the proposed air traffic non-profit’s board to a lobbying group, Airlines for America (AFA), that employs his girlfriend, Shelley Rubino. Trump’s outline to Congress used language that makes AFA the only trade group eligible to pick board seats for the non-profit, according to an airline industry source.

“Trump’s plan is very similar to Shuster’s in terms of how board seats are allocated,” an industry source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Based on how things are written, AFA is the only trade group that can get those seats. Her trade group will get those seats, which is huge.”

AFA is a powerful industry lobbying group with members that include United Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, U.S. Airways, Federal Express Corporation, United Parcel Service Airlines, and Alaska Airlines. The only U.S. airline that is not part of AFA is Delta.

Rubino is AFA’s vice president of global government affairs. Shuster chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Politico outed their relationship in April 2015. and Shuster claims Rubino did not lobby his office on his air traffic control legislation. However, he did not recuse himself from drafting the bill.

Shuster and Rubino were dating as recently as April 2016, according to Politico. The two were spotted lounging poolside in Miami Beach with AFA President Nick Calio. Public records show Rubino is registered as a Democrat in Connecticut. She previously worked for the chairman of the Democratic caucus.

The airline industry spent a total of more than $7.4 million on lobbying in 2016, with 47 percent of that going to Republicans, according to Shuster received $284,399 from the airline industry in the 2015-2016 cycle, making it his top donor.

Shuster proposed legislation in 2016 to transfer management of U.S. air traffic control assets to a non-profit corporation. The bill would have given “the principal organization representing mainline air carriers” control of four out of eleven, or 36 percent, of seats on the board. AFA would have been able to pick those four board members.

Partial control of the airline board would give AFA a say in how billions of dollars are spent and how revenue is raised. The Air Traffic Organization’s annual budget was nearly $7.4 billion in 2015.

“In Trump’s plan, the board would have the ability to set user fees,” the source told TheDCNF. “I imagine it will be billions of dollars in fees. That’s a ton of power.”

“All those assets would be transferred at no charge to the new entity. This air-traffic control non-profit would start off with I assume billions of dollars in assets. Air-traffic control is huge,” the source said.

Trump announced the plan in early June to relinquish federal control of air traffic to a non-profit entity, which many other countries already do. The White House released a follow-up statement, laying out the specifics of the plan using language favorable to AFA, according to the source.

The plan would allow “United States-based carriers with annual revenues greater than $10 billion” to select two of the nine seats of the non-profit’s governing board. Other seats would go to representatives of unions, airports, and the Department of Transportation.

“Airlines for America will appoint somebody to the board who they know will vote for them,” the source said.

“It depends on how they write the bill, but the only other airline association is international and won’t be determining air-traffic control policy,” the source said. “Airlines for America represents more than 90 percent of the U.S. airline industry so it has got to be them.”

Most U.S. airlines favor Trump’s proposed reforms, as they assert that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current management of air-traffic control is inefficient. Trump’s plan only lays out principles for air traffic control reform and hasn’t yet been introduced as legislation. It’s up to Congress to make it a reality.

That’s where Shuster comes in. As head of the transportation committee, he would take charge in drafting any air traffic control privatization legislation. In fact, Shuster has already claimed credit for inspiring Trump’s proposal.

“It was in the Fall of 2014 actually when I went to Trump Tower to talk to Donald Trump about my idea, about my plan for aviation,” Shuster said in the press conference announcing the White House plan.

“These reforms separate the regulator from the operator, as was mentioned, 60 other countries have done it. It’s good government. As Secretary Chao mentioned it’s a not-for-profit corporation, independent of the government. It will be operated, controlled, governed by the users of the system,” Shuster said.

AFA told TheDCNF any questions about the air traffic control plan should be directed to the House Transportation Committee. The trade group also said it had not seen Trump’s proposed legislation yet and thus can’t know if they’d receive the seats.

“Board members’ sole fiduciary duty will be to the independent service provider, and not to the groups that nominated them,” Justin Harclerode, Transportation Committee spokesman, told TheDCNF. “Violating that duty comes with legal consequences. Critics of reform like to argue that ‘airlines will run our air traffic control system.’ It’s a convenient talking point; it’s also completely untrue.”

“The Committee will ensure that a broad and balanced spectrum of public and private sector entities and users will nominate the board’s directors,” Harclerode said. “No group of nominees will dominate the board. However, directors will be prohibited from being employed by any nominating group, organization, or union with a significant relationship to the not-for-profit service provider.”

Shuster’s press secretary did not respond to TheDCNF’s requests for comment.

Jack Crowe and Benjamin Decatur contributed to this report.

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