Airlines Pan 'Scare Tactics'

Over harrowing images of plane crashes, an announcer intoned: "Air accidents will increase as air travel is expected to triple in the next two decades."

The ad ended with the admonishment, "Tell Washington to stop risking your future safety."

Scare tactics, cried the airline industry. An accurate description of proposed budget cuts, answered the group that ran the ads.

The advertising campaign was part of a successful lobbying effort to fund the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at $13.7 billion rather than cut $900 million as House lawmakers proposed.

The lobbying campaign was mounted out of fear that any cuts would come from the aeronautics part of NASA, which conducts research into such areas as strengthening airplanes, coping with turbulence and developing new technologies to allow planes to land in bad weather.

The efforts were led by business leaders in Hampton, Va., who were concerned about jobs at the NASA Langley Research Center, which spends 70 percent of its budget on aviation research. They didn't talk about employment but about possible dangers to the airline industry.

In addition to the TV commercials, one newspaper ad proclaimed, "If Congress doesn't support NASA today, you won't want to fly tomorrow."

"We think those are scare tactics," said David Fuscus, a spokesman for the airlines' trade group, the Air Transport Association, which supported full funding for NASA but didn't lobby against the cuts.

"They're not accurate and they're in very poor taste. No matter what the cause that someone is working on, to scare people needlessly is really unacceptable," said Fuscus.

Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo, who produced the ads, said they were accurate.

"American lives are at stake," she said. "I'm trying to defend the idea that somebody who buys a seat on one of those planes lands safely."

Between $500,000 and $1 million was raised from businesses, residents and local governments for the lobbying campaign.

"We needed to call attention to this nationally, and particularly in the Washington area," said Roy Harris, who spent 40 years at NASA Langley before retiring and now serves on the NASA Langley Community Support Team.

Rep. Herbert Bateman, R-Va., plastered the group's poll numbers in big black type across the tops of letters he regularly sent to his colleagues: 93 percent of respondents support air safety funding, 71 percent agree that the funding should continue even if it exceeds budget cap.

"It's very important to the nation's interest," Bateman said. "Our airlines will not be able to grow as they are expected to grow."

Bateman also buttonholed Rep. James Walsh, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA funding, as often as possible, even stopping by a fund-raising event for the New York Republican.

From the sidelies, officials at NASA Langley, applauded the effort.

"The ads are reasonably accurate," spokesman Gary Price said. "They know in a lab like this, we do work in advanced technology that could help many of these problems."