A major shake up at United Airlines is the result of a federal investigation into whether United set up a private non-stop flight between Newark and Columbia, South Carolina where former Port Authority Chair David Samson had a weekend home. United CEO Jeff Smisek is out in addition to his vice presidents of communications and government affairs. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron joined NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams to speak about the breaking news.
Aron says this is potentially big news as it brings David Samson back into the news after a three to four month hiatus.
“United Airlines is the most important tenant at Newark Airport run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It’s been reported widely that there’s been a federal investigation into whether United Airlines improperly sought to influence the Port Authority. The press release that United Airlines sent out about an hour ago said their own internal investigation, related to that federal investigation, caused them to seek the resignation of Jeff Smisek and the two other executives,” he said. “As you point out it all goes to the chairman’s flight. United in 2011 wanted some enhancements at Newark Airport. They wanted the PATH system to run to Newark Airport, among other things. I think they also wanted more berths for their planes. Smisek and Samson reportedly had dinner in 2011 to discuss this. Samson jokes that he had a weekend home in Aiken, South Carolina that he had trouble getting to. Smisek said maybe we can take care of that. Fast forward a couple of years, right after Chris Christie was elected governor, there was a big press conference at Newark Airport to announce that United was flying to Atlantic City and that this was further good relations between united and the port authority.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the co-chair of the select committee on investigation joins Aron and Williams by phone to comment on the Port Authority’s role and what this means for New Jersey.
He says that while the press release from United Airlines talks about a federal investigation and about their own internal investigation, it doesn’t specifically mention the chairman’s flight. “It’s hard to imagine that there’s another federal investigation involving United Airlines, involving the Port Authority, that doesn’t relate to the chairman’s flight. So it’s probably about that. I know that from the present council of that meeting that happened, at least one of the people that was asked to resign along with the chairman happened to be at that meeting that evening as well,” Wisniewski said.
This brings Samson and Bridgegate back into the limelight, after being out of the news for months. Aron asks if it begs the question ‘does this bring Bridgegate back into the forefront?’
He says, “certainly it was the Bridgegate investigation that led to the series of questions that ultimately led to revelation to things such as the chairman’s flight and other issues. So this is not something that’s directly related to the lane closures, but tangential, it underscores this functionality that’s existed at the Port Authority this whole time where people in positions of authority utilized the authority given to them, their positions at the Port Authority, for their own benefit.”
When asked if this will this roll into his continuous investigation, he says the US Attorney’s office is doing a fantastic job and he doesn’t want to step on their toes. “Remember our investigation is about fixing the problem at the Port Authority, legislative reforms that would make this impossible to happen again, so there’s lots of work to be done in that regard,” Wisniewski said. “Reform legislation between the two states has stalled, there’s a difference in opinion on how to approach it, but I think what this does show is that there is a need for top to bottom reform at the Port Authority from changing the way the commissioners are appointed, to the whole governing structure. It doesn’t clearly work for the benefit of the people right now and this is just one more piece of evidence that shows what doesn’t work.”
While New Port Authority Chairman John Degnan over the past year has introduced some reforms, Wisniewski says they’re internal. “They can change when there’s a new Executive Director, they can change when there’s a new board majority. What has to happen is there was to be structural, institutional reform in the contract between the states that authorize the Port Authority so that no matter who’s governor, who’s Executive Director, the reforms will stay in place. Right now this is something that can pass in the middle of the night,” he said.
He says it’s very hard to predict what will happen next. “Clearly internally United Airlines looked dis favorably on the conduct of the CEO and others in their organization and even agreeing to that accommodation that existed called the chairman’s flight so we don’t know what else was uncovered in that investigation, we don’t know what else Mr. Fishman is looking at. I think it’s one of those things that we have to stay tuned, we have to look at the details as they are known to us by either further announcements, by any of the parties, or by items that come up in our investigation,” he said.