Editor’s Note: this post has been updated to reflect the fact that Donald Trump has won the presidential election.
MIAMI — Donald Trump is now the president of the United States. With that, it’s worthy to take a look at how he will impact aviation in the USA.
Trump has focused heavily on airport quality
Throughout the campaign, Trump’s commentary on aviation, to the extent that there has been any, has been limited to airports. More specifically, Donald Trump has waxed poetic about the abysmal quality of US airports, specifically calling out New York LaGuardia as “third world” and shining a spotlight on the disparity between certain US airports and Middle Eastern mega hubs such as Doha or Dubai.
Those comments probably reached the largest audience during the first presidential debate, and were used by Trump as a lead in to his infrastructure plan, which he claims will generate massive quality improvements (mind you while simultaneously enacting a massive tax cut).
American airport infrastructure can’t be solved merely with more dollars
Before taking apart the notion of additional funds gaining us better airports, I think it’s important to note that Trump somehow managed to get off the plane at LaGuardia after flying in commercially from the Middle East, which seems like yet another fantasy that he’s concocted.
I’d also note that La Guardia is going to undergo a $4 billion renovation that won’t necessarily solve any airfield challenges, but will improve the terminal experience bigly as Trump would put it.
Setting that aside, the fundamental problem with US airport infrastructure isn’t a lack of funds necessarily. First and foremost, in the United States, we have these things called budgets and financial reality, which are not necessarily features of the United Arab Emirates’ or Qatar’s approach to aviation. Because publicly owned airports are accountable to the public for their budget, the ability to spend, say $2.2 million dollars on a spectacular statue in the center of Charlotte-Douglas airport is relatively limited.
Even beyond budgets themselves, there are two additional factors in the US that prevent us from achieving the same raw airport quality as the Middle East. The first is labor standards, particularly that in the US we’re not willing to import ultra low cost workers from foreign countries and we’re especially not willing to allow them to work in occasionally deplorable working conditions.
In fact, conversely, in the United States, most public works products see their costs inflated by the presence and involvement of labor unions, who inflate the cost of, for example, anything the Port Authority does at JFK, Newark, or LaGuardia.
Without commenting on whether that’s a good or bad thing, these policies and procedures are heavily ingrained at a local level and hard to overturn, even for a Trump. And does anyone really think that a Trump administration is going to set a new standard for governmental transparency and budget discipline? The above applies, with less derision to a President Clinton, whose party in many cases has emboldened the labor unions to inject these additional costs into the system.
For better or worse, we as a country have decided that we want our public works projects to heavily feature the involvement of labor unions, and Trump isn’t going to be able to shake that fact.
The second factor is environmental protection, which adds years and occasionally hundreds of millions of dollars to the planning phase of a new airport project. Then, even if a project meets those standards, it can be scuttled by a variety of environmental acts. It’s not unreasonable to say that the reason that New York’s airport infrastructure sucks is because JFK can’t expand into Jamaica Bay and make LaGuardia expendable. And JFK can’t expand into Jamaica Bay because the Atlantic Ridley sea turtle is endangered (amongst other species).
So, literally, we have set up a system where a turtle and some birds prevent the construction of an economic engine worth billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs in the most important city on Planet Earth. Again without passing judgment, this is something that we have decided as a society and Trump isn’t just going to be able to wave his hands to make that go away.
Trump’s trade policies will be devastating
Where the prospect of Trump goes from misguided about airports to truly catastrophic for US aviation is when you consider his trade policies. Trump’s threats to the global economic system, and specifically against America’s trade deals pose an existential threat to both the airline and aerospace industries in this country.
Starting on the airline side, revoking just one trade agreement such as NAFTA or US-China would cause airline traffic to and from that region to plummet, costing US airlines more jobs than Norwegian Air International or the MEB3 ever have.
Heaven forbid he rips up multiple trade deals—the big 3 legacy carriers would see their profits plummet (eliminating those profit sharing checks currently flowing to airline employees), and even the niche carriers and LCCs would have some exposure. Donald Trump could cost the US airline industry $5 billion in revenue, his trade policies pose that kind of danger.
On the aerospace side, there is obviously the supply chain risk that comes from having a globally integrated supply chain—what happens when Boeing can’t get its 737 parts out of Mexico. Of course for many Trump supporters, that element is a feature, not a bug—they want all of the components manufactured in the United States. Fine. But the trade deals required to do that will also block the United States from selling airplanes to foreign countries.
China is going to hit us with a tariff if Trump gets what he wants, and let me tell you, it’s going to be the best tariff and they are going to win and make Nanjing great again—or something like that.
But seriously, 75%+ of Boeing’s business doesn’t come from the United States. If Trump tears up trade agreements, what exactly does he think will happen when Boeing tries to sell those countries airplanes?
Donald Trump’s policies, if enacted, will cost the US aviation industry tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue – that is the uncertainty that American voters have now injected into their lives.