Donald Trump had little to say about aviation during his presidential campaign. When he did, it was mostly about the crumbling state of the nation’s airports. During one presidential debate, Trump held that flying into airports like New York’s LaGuardia was like visiting a “third-world country.”
Hyperbole aside, Trump’s comments—or lack there of—are both unsurprising and concerning. Unsurprising because aviation is an issue that few (if any) presidential candidates delve into. The political establishment views the state of the nation’s airlines and airways as being less appealing to voters than more traditional issues like taxes, immigration and defense.
But such silence is also concerning. According to government figures, America’s aviation industry accounts for more than 5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. It generates over $1.5 trillion in economic activity annually by providing access to ideas, markets and people. And it supports millions of jobs, most notably in the travel, manufacturing and tourism sectors. Simply put, the nation’s economic health is tied to the strength of its aviation industry.
With election fever winding down, airlines, environmental advocates, airplane manufacturers and others connected to the industry are scrambling to make sense of what a Trump presidency could mean for aviation. While his transition team has been tight lipped thus far, there are some areas where presidential action can profoundly affect the nation’s aviation sector.
Privatizing the nation’s skies is one of them. Government watchdogs have long criticized the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—the agency tasked with regulating air traffic services—for cumbersome procurement processes, cost overruns and mismanagement of public funds. Case in point: the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)—an effort estimated to cost nearly $36 billion to overhaul the nation’s aging air traffic control system. Although it has been in the works for more than a decade, NextGen remains years away from full implementation.
Privatization advocates—most notably, the commercial airline industry—point out that that the FAA would benefit from being run like a private business where accountability and efficiency are commonplace and where the bureaucratic red tape that has long hindered the FAA is the exception rather than the norm.
Environmental policy is another area where the Trump administration could wield tremendous influence. The United States is signatory to a United Nations agreement that tackles climate change by limiting aviation emissions. Although these emissions currently account for only 1.3 percent of global greenhouse gases, that figure is expected to climb substantially by 2050. The climate change agreement incentivizes airlines to use alternative fuels, offset excess emissions, and most notably, fly more fuel-efficient aircraft. Should the new administration renege on this agreement (Trump previously promised to “cancel” the overarching climate deal), such incentives would disappear. Airlines in turn, may be tempted to continue flying older gas-guzzlers.
The reason is simple. Newer airplanes may be greener but they also come with a hefty price tag. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner can carry more passengers while burning less fuel than some of its predecessors. But it also costs more than $200 million; hardly chump change for the airline industry that has long struggled with razor-thin profit margins. In the absence of incentive programs, these margins are why airlines hesitate to modernize their fleet.
A Trump administration may however mean shorter lines at airports. The President-elect has pledged to “fix” the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency tasked with managing airport security. The TSA faced criticism last summer after growing airport lines—some over 3 hours long—forced passengers to miss flights and sleep on cots inside airport terminals. Those events were blamed on staffing shortages.
A cash injection aimed at hiring and training new screening officers would help. So would investments in new technology. The next generation of airport scanners can detect weapons and explosives faster and more accurately than existing systems. Although both options require Congressional approval they would benefit from backing by the White House.
Perhaps most closely watched however, will be Trump’s stance on what some call the biggest trade dispute in history. American, Delta and United Airlines allege that Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways—all based in the Middle East—benefit from billions in “unfair” subsidies provided by their wealthy government coffers. These subsidies allow the big three Gulf carriers to undercut American carriers on price, thereby violating international trade agreements and threatening more than 200,000 American jobs.
That’s prime legislative territory for Trump whose protectionist rhetoric during the presidential campaign resonated with millions of voters. In the run-up to the election, he pledged on numerous occasions, to end, “foreign trade abuses that hurt the American worker.” Jill Zuckman, chief spokesperson for a U.S. airline lobbying group, says, “Trump’s views on international trade and the importance of enforcing our trade agreements give us heart that he will take a serious look at the subsidy issue."
Looking at it is one thing. Acting upon is another. Although they back protectionist policies, U.S. airlines are themselves seeking stronger foothold in overseas markets. Limiting foreign carrier access to U.S. markets could complicate these efforts. Many foreign carriers—including the major Gulf airlines—are also major customers of Boeing and other American companies. Emirates Airlines alone has more than $50 billion worth of aircraft on order from the Chicago-based airplane manufacturer.
And then there’s economics—less competition in the marketplace invariably drives up cost if demand stays constant or increases. Simply put, airfares will almost certainly rise should foreign carriers be frozen out of U.S. markets, hardly an appealing prospect for the millions of Americans who take to the skies every year.
Which policies the President-elect ultimately chooses to pursue is anyone’s guess. “Like everything else surrounding the future Donald Trump presidency, the predicted impact on aviation is as varied and as, well, unpredictable as the campaign that led the country to this point,” notes Russ Niles, editor-in-chief of AVweb, an aviation news Web site. For now, we are left in a holding pattern.