The lobbyist, the professor, and the business executive were all flying between Boston and Washington one day recently when they spied the familiar figure of Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.
The scene was Logan’s shuttle terminal, but it might have been the next best thing to a stroll down the halls of Congress.
Arthur Segel, a Harvard Business School professor and international real estate investor, approached the Massachusetts Democrat to say hello and they agreed to reconnect to talk about India, where he has expertise.
As Kennedy boarded, he gave a wave to Michael Mattoon, a lobbyist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Once seated, Kennedy spotted Bob Pozen, the longtime mutual fund executive who was en route to meetings with a board affiliated with the World Bank.
Kennedy, in turn, did his own bit of networking. He caught Senator Elizabeth Warren, preparing to board a flight before him, and got her insight into a vexing Senate holdup.
“That,” Kennedy said, “is what the shuttle flight is like.”
The hourly shuttle flights between Boston and Reagan National Airport are a vital connection between the nation’s capital and the Hub of the Universe in more ways than one. The BOS-DCA shuttle provides an airborne showcase of the region’s power players as they travel to private dinners and university clubs, to fund-raisers and congressional hearings.
It is one of the nation’s most-traveled routes, and among the 4,000 daily passengers are lobbyists and defense contractors, university professors, and health care executives.
“There are more business suits on this flight than any other in the country,” said James Wiegel, the national sales manager for Wellesley Investment Advisors, which recently opened an office in the Washington area.
The flights are a unique sample of the Massachusetts-based economy. On Monday mornings, they are packed with defense contractors heading to meetings at the Pentagon or defense industry think tanks. On Monday afternoons and Tuesday mornings, members of Congress are boarding flights to make it down in time for Tuesday evening votes.
Regulars include Supreme Court justices (Stephen Breyer) as well as Cabinet officials (Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz). As secretary of state, John Kerry still occasionally flies the shuttle and is welcomed back like an old friend (he doesn’t go through security, since he has his own detail, but he does wait in line with his boarding pass before finding his seat in the first row of first class).
Flight attendants know that Senator Warren likes tea with cream. An eager Warren supporter sitting in the back of the plane once sent a flight attendant to offer the new senator a drink. She declined.
“She doesn’t know you,” came the reply from the flight attendant. “And she doesn’t want a drink.”
Senator Edward Markey, who has backed legislation banning in-flight cellphone calls, is always careful to heed the warnings to stop his phone conversations before takeoff.
Overt deals are rare on the flights — and are even frowned upon. Peter Malone, a private equity executive, said he takes blank cover sheets to obscure some of his documents. Passengers on this flight, he said, would know what they mean more than on any other route in the country. When deals do happen, they must be done discreetly, given the captive audience.
For members of Congress, it can be like office hours, where they are forced to confront constituents who happen to be seat mates. Gate agents report that passengers frequently request a new seat assignment so that they can be next to a person with whom they are hoping to conduct business.
“There’s definitely a club car kind of feeling,” said Charlie Baker, the long-time Democratic consultant (not the one who is the Republican governor-elect) who says he has flown on the shuttle weekly since 1990.
There are an average of 46 daily flights between Reagan National Airport and Boston, about two every hour on weekdays by either JetBlue or US Airways. That is more than any other direct flight out of either Boston or Washington, aside from flights from each to LaGuardia, according to an analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics done for the Globe by masFlight, a firm that analyzes airline industry data. (There are flights from two other D.C.-area airports as well).
Boston sends more passengers only to Chicago, while Washington sends more only to Atlanta. The number of passengers traveling between Boston and Reagan National Airport has surged in recent years, at about 1.4 million every year since 2010.
Boston-to-Washington shuttle flights date to 1962, when now-defunct Eastern Airlines began using five aircraft to shuttle between the two cities. Eastern was sold to Donald Trump, who ran Trump Shuttle for three years before selling it to US Airways in 1992. Delta Air Lines began operating a shuttle flight in the 1980s before eliminating it in 2012; JetBlue began offering shuttle flights in 2010. Aside from a drop-off after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the number of flights and passengers has grown over the years and become one of the most lucrative offerings for airlines.
In Boston, the shuttle terminal for US Airways — where the bulk of flights to Reagan National Airport leave from — is filled with gray and silver colors, meant to evoke a mood of professionalism. (Airport workers refer to the area as “Kansas” for its staid look, while other parts of Logan are “The Land of Oz” for light and movement. In Washington, sitting directly outside the gate where Boston passengers leave and arrive? Dunkin Donuts. Both airports have a branch of restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods.
“Airline flights are somewhat like the golf course,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime Boston-based Democratic consultant who frequently travels to Washington. “It’s a good place to socialize but a bad place to do deals. Airplanes are particularly bad for discretion. However, like the golf course, a good social experience can reap benefits in the future.”
The flights are a time to make the kind of connections that will pave the way for a deal later. Gossip is traded — about personalities, what legislation is moving, or the latest committee assignments. But no one wants to be the aggressive guest at the cocktail party.
“I think people are kind of guarded in those areas,” said Jim Segel, a longtime frequent flier, first as a top aide to former congressman Barney Frank and now as a lobbyist at ADS Ventures, a government relations firm. “It’s a question of being a safe harbor. You don’t expect it and don’t want it. It’s bad form. People for the most part don’t act that way, certainly not professionally.”
On a recent Monday at a Logan lounge, Tom Traylor, the vice president for government affairs at Boston Medical Center, was waiting to board a D.C. flight for meetings on Capitol Hill. Nearby was a defense contractor in a rumpled suit who has meetings at the Pentagon but said the topic was too discreet to discuss as he sprinted to his flight.
A few hours later, Warren stared at her Macbook, munching on a banana as she typed a broadside against a White House nominee. Representative Katherine Clark, fresh from the airport salon in preparation for a White House ball, laughed with Representative Kennedy.
Such random encounters happen all the time — and can change history.
William Weld said that he happened to sit next to Senator Ed Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican, on a shuttle flight in 1978. Brooke told Weld that he should consider running for attorney general that year. He did — and lost to Frank Bellotti by 57 points.
“It was, however, the launch of my public career, as it led directly to my being appointed US attorney by President Reagan three years later,” Weld said. (Weld eventually was elected governor in 1990; he still flies the shuttle flight, now as a principal at the lobbying shop ML Strategies).
Politicians generally avoid any upgrades to first class — although not always. When he was governor, Mitt Romney once accepted an upgrade while Boston-based political operatives in the back snickered.
Years ago, then-Representative Bill Delahunt was sitting in first class when Senator Edward M. Kennedy walked on board with his wife, Vicki.
“Well, Congressman Delahunt!” Kennedy bellowed, loud enough for everyone on the plane to hear. “Sitting up here in first class, ignoring the people! Not sitting with the people, but up here with the elite!”
The plane broke into laughter. Delahunt said he would give up his seat for Vicki, but not for the senior senator (who was known to sit in first class himself from time to time).
“Over time friendships emerge,” Delahunt said. “You’re in the same cattle car.”
One night in 2008, on the last flight from Boston to Washington, Kennedy was in first class when he beckoned former US representative Chester Atkins to sit next to him. He talked about how Barack Obama would be a transformational leader, and how much his election would mean to the country. A few days later, Kennedy endorsed Obama in the Democratic primary.
“It was one of those moments,” Atkins said, “where you realize you had a rare opportunity to have a front-row seat in history.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.