For 18 months, a 50-seat regional jet left United Airlines’ Newark hub each Thursday night bound for Columbia, South Carolina. On Monday mornings, United Express flew back to Newark.
Federal prosecutors want to know if United offered the flight because David Samson, then the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, spent weekends in Aiken, S.C., about 50 miles from the Columbia airport. The Port Authority and United have received subpoenas from U.S. investigators examining Samson’s travel and his communications with United, The Record newspaper in New Jersey reported earlier this month.
Samson referred to the Columbia route as the “chairman’s flight,” the newspaper reported, citing a source it did not identify.
United ended the flight on April 1, 2014, three days after Samson resigned from the agency amid the political turmoil that followed the release of emails showing that aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Port Authority officials had orchestrated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, snarling traffic for several days in Fort Lee, N.J.
United told investors that it has begun its own investigation into contacts with the Port Authority, as part of its cooperation with the federal probe, according to a regulatory filing it made on Feb. 20.
[Editor’s Note: The regulatory filing states: “The Company and certain of its executive officers and employees have received federal grand jury subpoenas requesting records and testimony related to certain individuals formerly associated with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and related operations of the Company and the Company is conducting an internal investigation in response. The Company is cooperating with the government’s investigation.”]
A United spokeswoman said Tuesday that the airline had no comment beyond its filing. A spokeswoman for Samson, a former New Jersey Attorney General, declined to comment. Samson is being represented by Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security director and past U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, for the federal inquiry and by a separate law firm for the state investigations resulting from the bridge scandal.
United uses Newark Liberty airport as one of its largest hubs, with service to about 150 destinations, following its 2010 merger with Continental. The airline has numerous business dealings with the Port Authority, which oversees the New York City area’s three main airports. Those arrangements include a 20-year lease extension United and the authority announced in April 2013, four months after the airline broke ground on a new, $35 million facility to handle maintenance work for its wide-body jets.
“The Port Authority can really make or break United at that airport,” said Eric Fraser, an attorney in Phoenix who specializes in regulatory law. Samson became chairman of the authority in early 2011 after Christie appointed him to its board. The United flight to Columbia began in September 2012.
If the Columbia flight began as United’s effort to curry favor with a public official it felt it needed to keep happy, or was the result of a perceived threat to the carrier by a powerful political force, the legal consequences could be significant for both the airline and Samson, said Mary Schiavo, a former federal prosecutor and Department of Transportation inspector general, who now works in private practice in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
“When you’re trying to make cases like this, it certainly helps if someone had a conversation or you have witnesses. But you can use circumstantial evidence,” she said.
Prosecutors probably want to see internal United emails and whether mid-level executives discussed the need for the Columbia flight, Fraser said. “It’s all about the emails,” he said.
U.S. airline schedules haven’t been regulated for nearly 40 years, and air routes that please an important member of Congress, regulator, or business executive aren’t so unusual. U.S. senators from West Virginia, for example, have defended the federally subsidized air service to a rural airport near the tony Greenbrier Resort for decades.
Fraser also noted that airlines often give members of Congress top-tier status in frequent-flier programs, which often means upgrades to first or business class. That illustrates the difference between “trying to scratch the back of some politician and the immediate and real expectation of something in return,” the sort of quid pro quo prosecutors in the United case are likely seeking, he said.
Another potential issue: South Carolina’s capital has daily flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport and to numerous airline hubs: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Washington D.C. A Columbia flight from a United hub would not be a crazy proposition to an airline route planner given the number of large corporations with operations in the state.
A Newark flight “is just as attractive to BMW, Bosch, and Daimler executives booking business or first class from Germany to Columbia, and Bridgestone, Honda, Fuji and Hitachi executives booking premium fares from Columbia to Japan, as it is to local U.S. domestic travelers and frequent flyer redemptions,” said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former airline executive. On the other hand, the United Express flights operated just once a week.
Like other carriers, United experiments with new routes, often with the regional airlines that fly to smaller cities under contract. United flew regional jets from another New Jersey airport, Atlantic City, to its Chicago and Houston hubs for eight months last year before canceling both routes in December because of weak financial performance.
The big question in the Columbia flight: Is there enough evidence of improper contacts or motives to bring a federal criminal case?
“If United realized they were offering this flight to curry favor with a public official, then United’s in the soup—it’s a bribe,” Schiavo says. “Just because they felt that if they didn’t do it for this guy that they would somehow suffer with their leases or whatever at the Newark airport … then they’re just as guilty as who got the gratuity or got the bribe. It’s not like this guy was going to wrestle them to the ground or chain up all their airplanes.”
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