Skift Take

Airline and airport executives must be excited to have the support of President Trump when it comes to airport modernization and air traffic control reforms. Trump's own comments as reported in the meeting, however, lay bare how little he truly knows about the complex landscape of aviation.

Following a breakfast meeting with President Trump at the White House this morning, airline and airport executives voiced optimism for the potential of infrastructure improvements and relaxed regulations to improve the state of air travel in the United States.

[Editor’s note: Updated with statement from FAA, below]

Air traffic control problems, delays, excessive regulations, and foreign competition were all subjects of conversation in the meeting.

Attendees included Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines; Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines; Gary C. Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines; Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group; the heads of Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago airports; and the heads of various shipping companies like UPS and Atlas Air.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker did not attend due to a conflict stemming from an American Airlines management meeting which had already been planned.

Southwest’s Kelly spoke first and said the top priority for helping airlines would be to “modernize the air traffic control system” noting that money spent on the system has not helped improve it in the past.

Characteristically, Trump pledged his support for making U.S. airports the best in the world again. Trump himself was an owner of TAG Air, a private jet charter company whose jets he used during his campaign.

Trump said the Federal Aviation Administration would be more effective if run by a pilot instead of a bureaucrat. “I have a pilot who’s a real expert” and thinks airlines are given “the wrong stuff” by the government, Trump said according to public pool reports.

“We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays,” Trump continued.

He went on to joke with the head of LAX that he would help make her airport the largest in the world, building on its current status as the seventh largest.

“We’ll make it number one,” Trump boasted.

He also called the current air traffic control system “totally out of whack” and asked why airlines had allowed the government to invest in weak technology. Kelly had to tell Trump that airlines don’t control the air traffic control system.

In a lunch meeting later in the day, Trump told a collection of senators that he had “just met with airline leaders to talk about that industry. Got to get that one going. There have been a number of problems but it’s going to get good.”

Southwest Airlines’ Kelly told a small press conference that “we need to invest in the infrastructure and are especially keen on modernizing air traffic control.”

Airlines are still not in total agreement about how exactly air traffic control should be modernized, and the issue is up for debate on Capitol Hill next week.

Airlines for America, the trade group representing most major U.S. carriers, portrayed the meeting as a productive step towards aviation reform.

“U.S. airlines are an integral part of our nation’s economy, as millions of Americans depend on safe, affordable and abundant air travel and shipping options each day,” said Airlines for America spokesperson Nick Calio. “We are grateful to President Trump for hosting this meeting and were encouraged by his in-depth understanding of our industry and the need to reform our air traffic control system. We share his administration’s goals of growing jobs, reducing taxes and regulation, and expanding our economy. We are confident we can achieve these outcomes by working together.

Delta Air Lines has long differed from its peers in its commitment to the public operation of air traffic control. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the meeting was a success in a statement made Thursday afternoon.

“I appreciate the opportunity to meet with President Trump today along with colleagues from across the industry and look forward to continuing our efforts to make U.S. aviation great,” Bastian said. “We had a positive discussion about many of the major issues facing U.S. travelers, airline employees and the aviation industry, which is a vital economic engine for America. I look forward to working with President Trump, Secretary Chao, Secretary Tillerson and other members of the administration on issues important to Delta, our employees and our customers. Delta has been leading the charge to expand and upgrade our nation’s airports, with extensive improvement projects planned and underway at major Delta hubs. At Delta, we plan to hire 25,000 people over the next five years with the support of a level playing field globally.”

The push of Norwegian Air into the U.S. has represented a problem for legacy carriers who don’t want low-cost carriers to undercut their domestic advantage. Following the meeting, Norwegian Air expressed its support for President Trump.

“Based on initial reports from this morning’s meeting between U.S. airline CEOs and the President, we are pleased that the President understands the value foreign airlines like Norwegian contribute to the American economy,” said Anders Lindström, director of communications, USA, for Norwegian Air. “No other foreign airline invests more in the American economy or creates more American jobs than Norwegian. We currently have 500 U.S.-based cabin crew and is the only foreign airline to be recruiting American pilots, all of which are hired under local laws and regulations with competitive packages.”

On the subject of Open Skies agreements, Trump expressed support for revising the U.S. policy which helps Gulf carriers compete in North America, just two days after White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the U.S. has “huge economic interest” in Norwegian Air’s business.

“We appreciate President Trump’s time and his attention to the challenges facing the aviation industry,” said Jill Zuckman, chief spokesperson for the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies. “We are particularly gratified that President Trump is focused on longstanding trade violations by the UAE and Qatar that are costing American jobs. With $50 billion in foreign government subsidies to Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, our U.S. carriers are at a competitive disadvantage that is costing American jobs. It’s time to enforce our agreements and stand up for the 300,000 airline workers whose jobs are at stake. We look forward to continued discussions with President Trump and his team.”

FAA Pushes Back

The Federal Aviation Administration, which was the unmentioned target of criticism during the gathering responded Thursday evening with a statement about its infrastructure investments. The statement reads, in full:

The FAA has spent $7.5 billion in congressionally appropriated funds on the air traffic modernization program known as NextGen over the past seven years. That investment has resulted in $2.7 billion in benefits to passengers and the airlines to date, and is expected to yield more than $160 billion in benefits through 2030.

NextGen is one of the most ambitious infrastructure and modernization projects in U.S. history. Its successful, ongoing rollout is the result of rigorous acquisition, program and portfolio management, and stakeholder engagement with the airline industry and other members of the aviation community. The FAA invited airline stakeholders to help develop the blueprint for NextGen and they continue to have a seat at the table in setting NextGen priorities and investments through the NextGen Advisory Committee.


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Tags: politics

Photo credit: Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, appearing at the White House following a meeting with President Donald J. Trump alongside other aviation leaders. Fox Business News

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