WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump met with the CEOs of three of America’s four largest airlines at the white house Thursday, discussing a variety of topics including America’s aviation infrastructure and possible protectionist measures to restrict competition from lower cost international carriers. While coverage leading up to the meeting with Delta’s Ed Bastian, Southwest’s Gary Kelly, and United’s Oscar Munoz amongst others focused on the potential for revisions to America’s bilateral air service agreements (ASAs) with foreign countries, the topic of the meeting seemed to more broadly encompass aviation policy under the Trump administration. Also attending the meeting were Brad Tilden (CEO of Alaska Airlines), three cargo airlines, and the chief executives of Los Angeles International Airport and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Air traffic control infrastructure was a key theme of discussion, with President Trump characterizing the system as “totally out of whack.” Indeed one of the key goals for the various aviation stakeholders in attending the meeting was to restart momentum on the NextGen National Airspace System, which has been held back in development due to the budget constraints at least partially driven by the President’s newly minted Republican allies in Congress.
The president also laid out broadly generalized goals for aviation infrastructure in the US. “We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays,” he said. “And we have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports.”
His commentary on ATC infrastructure also extended to the FAA, suggesting that a pilot should run the aviation administration of the world’s busiest airspace.
“I hear we have the wrong system. … And is the gentleman who’s the head of the FAA right now not a pilot?” Trump said according to reporting by Politico. “I’d like to find out because I think it maybe would be good to have a pilot — like a really good pilot that knows what’s going on. … I would think you need a very sophisticated person in that job.”
No firm news came out of the meeting regarding bilateral changes to the OpenSkies agreement between the United States and the Middle Eastern states of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. The largest three carriers in the United States allege that the Middle East Big Three (MEB3) airlines (Etihad and Emirates in the UAE and Qatar Airways in Qatar) are unfairly subsidized by their governments and thus in violation of trade agreements between the United States and those countries.
Accordingly, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines joined together to form a lobbying organization known as the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies asking for the US to pull back on its OpenSkies ASAs with the Middle Eastern nations. However American Airlines has, in recent months, displayed a reticence to go after the MEB3 with as much fervor as Delta (the leader of the charge). In fact American CEO Doug Parker ended up pulling out of Thursday’s meeting, with Southwest CEO Gary Kelly ending up filling his void.
Despite the focus on the MEB3 question (and on recently approved Norwegian Air International) entering the meeting, the only commentary coming out of the meeting on the issue from Trump was vague. In fact the president’s commentary on the issue barely related to aviation period and appeared to suggest that previous US administrations should have committed acts in the Middle East that are technically war crimes.
“We’ve spent 6 trillion dollars in the Middle East. We’ve got nothing,” ” said President Trump, “We never even kept even a little tiny oil well. I said, ‘Keep the oil… We have nothing, and we have an obsolete plane system, obsolete airports, obsolete trains, we have bad roads. We’re going to change all of that folks. You’re going to be so happy with Trump. I think you already are.”
Despite not receiving a firm commitment to reign in ASAS, the airline CEOs and other executives present at the meeting came out cautiously optimistic:
“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.” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian. “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.”
“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.”