The airline industry set what appears to be a new record for lobbying in 2008, spending just over $30 million in an attempt to access key decision-makers in government and influence legislation, according to government filings compiled by the Web site Opensecrets.org.

The largest single donor was the Air Transport Association of America, the lobbying organization for the U.S. airline industry. It reportedly spent $5.8 million to push a broad agenda that included the defeat of a passenger bill of rights, lighter government regulation and efforts to stop oil speculation.

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It was followed closely by American Airlines ($5.7 million) and Delta Air Lines ($5.3 million). The largest non-U.S. airline donors on the list were Virgin Group ($300,000) and Lufthansa ($170,000). (Read the full Opensecrets.org report here.)

It appears to have been money well spent.

Washington didn’t enact passenger rights legislation last year. It failed to fine airlines for all but the most egregious violations of federal regulations. And it looked the other way as airlines formed oligopolistic, anti-consumer alliances that extended far beyond marketing and codesharing.

This new record raises an interesting question: If airline passengers had $30 million to spend in Washington, what could they buy?

If, say, Kate Hanni’s coalition had a couple of million bucks to throw at a lawmaker or two, would we have a strong bill that makes it illegal for airlines to keep their customers imprisoned on a plane that’s sitting on the tarmac? If the newly-formed Association for Airline Passenger Rights could toss six figures into someone’s campaign fund, would the Transportation Department begin to enforce its own rules?

At the very least, maybe they could pay off a well-known travel expert to push their agenda.

But that’s not how it works. At least not yet.