The nation's airlines flew lawmakers quite a long distance this week to host them at their annual industry conference, a government watchdog group said Thursday.

Lawmakers attending the Aviation Issues Conference, organized by the American Association of Airport Executives, arrived in Hawaii this week for the royal treatment from airline industry executives.

"We challenge the industry to tell us who is representing the public interest," said Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger

Held at the Haupuna Beach Prince Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii, the 40 co-sponsors, including the Air Transport Association, hobnobbed with lawmakers such as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who chair the congressional subcommittees that write transportation spending bills.

Murray spokesman Todd Webster said the conference gave the senator an opportunity to meet with airport executives carrying out parts of the new airline security law.

It also gives industry lobbyists a chance to push for transportation packages and a change in rules. Last month, lobbyists tried to delay a Jan. 18 deadline requiring that all checked bags be screened for explosives approved in airline safety legislation.

But the airports' chief lobbyist, Todd Hauptli, says the annual Hawaii conference, which began 16 years ago, is more about getting a chance to discuss industry trends.

"It is an opportunity for the entire aviation industry to get together and talk about what's going on," said Hauptli, senior vice president for legislative affairs for both the AAAE and the Airports Council International-North America.

ATA spokesman Michael Wascom defended the event, saying: "A diverse group of co-sponsors from across the aviation spectrum committed their participation in this annual conference — which is hosted by an airport organization, not by the airlines — long before the tragic events of Sept. 11."

Still, the influence of the aviation industry is sure to raise some eyebrows, especially after Congress approved a $15 billion package of grants and loan guarantees for the industry following the terrorist attacks.

That quick and decisive vote comes on the tails of more than $8.4 million in contributions to candidates and political parties from the airline industry since Jan. 1, 1999.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.