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United’s Columbia-Newark route at heart of federal investigation

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By Chuck Crumbo
Published Sept. 9, 2015

Investigators are trying to determine if United Airlines launched non-stop service between Columbia and Newark, N.J., to curry favor with the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

On Tuesday, United CEO Jeff Smisek and two of his top lieutenants resigned as investigators from the office of U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey sought to learn if David Samson, former chairman of the Port Authority, extracted favors from the carrier for his personal benefit.

United’s non-stop service on a 50-passenger regional jet between Newark Liberty International Airport and Columbia Metropolitan Airport was referred to as “the chairman’s flight,” the Bergen County (N.J.) Record reported.

Samson used the service to fly to Columbia on Thursdays and then drive to Aiken, about 50 miles from Columbia, so he could spend weekends with his wife, the newspaper added.

The Newark-Columbia non-stop service, which was offered only on Mondays and Thursdays, began Sept. 6, 2012, and ended April 1, 2014, said Dan Mann, executive director of the Columbia airport.

The service was discontinued three days after Samson resigned as Port Authority chairman.

Airport officials first learned of plans to launch the Columbia-Newark non-stop service when they met Jan. 27, 2012, with United officials at the carrier’s headquarters in Chicago, Mann said.

The load factor on the Newark-Columbia non-stop service averaged in the “low 50s,” Mann said, meaning that the plane was slightly more than half-full. The average for all passenger flights in and out of Columbia is more than 80%, Mann said.

“Service underperformed and we discussed that with United on several occasions,” Mann said, noting that most flights provided by legacy airliners like United operate daily.

“No notice when it was pulled, but we were not surprised given the low number of passengers,” Mann said.

Airport employees didn’t know Samson was on the flights, Mann added.

The Record reported that the U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s investigation of Samson and the Newark-Columbia non-stop service grew out of a separate probe into the September 2013 shutdown of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, which led to a massive traffic tie-up in Fort Lee, N.J.

Investigators were looking into whether the lane closings were a retaliatory strike by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s operatives against local officials for not supporting Christie’s re-election.

Samson, founding partner of the N.J. law firm Wolff & Samson, was chairman of Christie’s transition team when he was first elected in 2009. Christie later appointed Samson to the Port Authority.

Samson then was elected chairman in February 2011 and resigned March 28, 2014.

According to the Record, United was in negotiations with the Port Authority during Samson’s tenure over extending a regional passenger rail service from Lower Manhattan to the Newark airport and providing flights to Atlantic City, N.J.

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