It’s still early days in the US Trump administration, but here’s a few thoughts on the outlook for aviation, good and bad, given what little we have seen and heard so far.
The “good” first:
- US President Donald Trump is interested enough in the US commercial air transportation system to have called a White House meet-and-greet with airline and airport executives early in his tenure. That at least indicates this is an industry on his radar. From what is known about the informal conversations at that meeting, he “gets it” that the US air traffic control system could be much more efficient and that the technology exists to make it so. If he can then make the link from proven, existing technology to how the ATC system is managed and see where the gap lies between – for a man who keeps emphasizing his business credentials, that link shouldn’t be too difficult – then we might finally have a very powerful advocate for ATC and FAA reform. This is not a technology challenge; it’s a process/organization challenge.
- In his address to Congress Tuesday, Trump restated his desire to invest money in US airport infrastructure. He called on Congress to invest $1 trillion in US infrastructure, including US airports, and pledged that “crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.” So airports, at least, made the cut in Trump’s first major speech since his inauguration.
- This is a president for whom jobs and patriotism are winning currency. The US air transport industry can easily and genuinely make the case for both. There are strong metrics that tie a healthy, growing airline industry to a country’s GDP. On a more local scale, cities thirst for good airports with great connections because they know there is a direct link to their ability to attract business and thrive. Airlines and airports also create jobs – high-quality careers – as does the manufacturing of airliners and airport equipment. ATC reform can also be presented as an American story: why should the United States – first to fly and first to put a man on the moon – now lag other countries like Canada, New Zealand and the UK – in how it manages its air traffic system?
- Trump has also made clear the special skills he believes he brings to the presidency as a businessman – the ability to identify and make cost savings. It’s easy to demonstrate the billions of dollars that are lost through flight delays caused by an antiquated, analogue, inefficient system. Trump could claim to be the one who fixed that.
- Trump’s pick for Department of Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, is highly regarded on both sides of Congress and someone who is already familiar with managing large government agencies (she was Labor Secretary in the George W. Bush administration) while also understanding transport issues specifically (she was deputy transportation secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration). This is someone with a reputation for hard work and pragmatism and who can hit the road running.
- The Obama administration mostly trod water on aviation until the very end, when it introduced needless “consumer” regulation that interferes with how airlines do business. Businessman Trump should be able to differentiate between where airline regulation is acceptable (safety) and where it is not (telling airlines how to sell their products and defining those products).
Now for the “bad”:
- The handling of the travel ban executive order in January was a highly worrisome indicator of how little the president and his advisors seem to understand about how the international air transport system works. Essentially, the overnight ban with little to no prior consultation with airlines, airports and immigration authorities meant that citizens boarded flights to the US legally, but were banned by the time their aircraft arrived in the US. This posed a shocking, unnecessary and costly burden on airlines and airports.
- Details, details. Or lack thereof. Like so much of Trump’s pledges so far, there are broad outlines on transportation investment with very little in the way of specifics. Repairing America’s roads and bridges alone could easily use up the $1 trillion Trump has said will be invested in the country’s transportation infrastructure.US airport CEOs and lobbyists immediately leapt on Trump’s Congress address to call for an increase or even lifting of the $4.50 flight segment maximum passenger facility charge (PFC) to help fund airport infrastructure projects. But tax increases are not the solution. These would only be passed on to the passenger. There are uncommitted aviation trust fund monies that should be tapped first.
- Defense spending. Going back to that liking for patriotism, Trump has quickly shown an interest in boosting the Pentagon’s budget at the expense of other government agencies. Nothing like a little “money for the troops” language to get the patriotic juices flowing. If followed through (and it’s a big “if”, given likely Democratic opposition), then DOT and the State Department– especially State – will see large budget cuts. It’s difficult to see how to balance the promised transportation infrastructure investments with such cuts. But State has cause for deeper concerns. So far, Trump appears to have little interest in the Foggy Bottom agency and appears okay with sidelining it. That has implications for the diplomacy side of air transportation, not least the US’ commitment to Open Skies policy.
- Here’s the big one. All the “good” that this administration could potentially do for aviation will come to naught if the president’s seemingly volatile nature leads to some kind of economic catastrophe. Many are lauding Trump’s Congress address as his first indication that he can, indeed, be presidential, stick to the script and demonstrate he is serious about the job. If that continues, it goes into the “good” list – after all, stocks rose after the speech. But the air transport industry is especially vulnerable to events outside its control – simply put, people stop traveling when they are afraid, uncertain or no longer willing or able to pay to fly. Let’s hope this president recognizes the value of a healthy US air transport system.
Karen Walker Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org