Trump vows to modernize airports in meeting with airline execs

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President Trump slammed a federal agency’s multi-billion dollar effort to modernize its air traffic control system and promised to upgrade the nation’s airports during his meeting with top airline executives on Thursday morning. 

“I have a pilot who’s a real expert, and he said … [the government] is instituting a massive, multi-billion dollar project, but they’re using the wrong equipment,” Trump said to airline CEOs, airport officials and air cargo carriers. “So let’s find out about that.”

Trump pledged to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and improve the technology that keeps airports running during the sit-down, which is just the latest in a series of “listening sessions” between the new administration and various business leaders. Trump held a similar meeting with top U.S. automakers last month.

Among the attendees were Brad Tilden, chairman and CEO of Alaska Airlines; Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines; Robin Hayes, president and CEO of JetBlue Airways; Gary C. Kelly, chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines; Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines; and Nicholas E. Calio, president of Airlines for America. American Airlines was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.


A recent inspector general report shows that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has struggled to implement its NextGen modernization program, which aims to establish a precise satellite-based surveillance system and digital data communications for air traffic controllers and pilots. The industry says an outdated technology system has created frustrating and costly flight delays.

Trump asked why airline corporations had permitted the government to invest in a system that is “totally out of whack,” but Southwest emphasized that airlines are not “in control” of those decisions. The president suggested that the system could perhaps benefit if a pilot was in charge of the FAA. The current head of the agency, Michael Huerta, was appointed to a five-year term that expires in 2018.

Trump, who has long talked about the need to fix the country’s “third-world” airports, has promised to deliver a massive infrastructure package to Congress but has so far offered few clues about what the bill would look like.

JetBlue said after the meeting that “everyone agreed we need an infrastructure plan that will once again give the American public an aviation system we can be proud of. We look forward to working with this Administration and Congress to restart efforts after years of delay and inaction.”

Republicans, including House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), along with some of the nation’s major airlines, have advocated for a proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government. 

Shuster told The Hill last month that he has talked to Trump “a couple of times” about the idea of overhauling air traffic control, adding that Trump’s “response has been positive.”

But Trump has not yet taken a stance on the reform plan, which has been divisive among lawmakers and airlines. Lawmakers will soon begin work to reauthorize the FAA, as the agency’s current legal authority expires in September.


The Airports Council International said they shared their concerns over potential reforms to air traffic control management during the meeting. Some opponents worry about handing over the system to a non-profit organization.

The airport group also urged Trump to lift the federal cap on the Passenger Facility Charge; expand expedited traveler screening programs; and give airports more flexibility to attract airlines to their communities.

During the meeting, Trump also acknowledged that airlines are “under pressure from foreign elements and foreign carriers” but said “at the same time, we want to make life good for them also. They come with big investments.”

Airlines have expressed frustration over Gulf carriers such as Etihad Airways, Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways that receive massive federal subsidies from their governments, which some say unfairly benefits the industry rivals.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during his daily press briefing that the airlines were “unanimous” in asking for regulatory relief from Trump, “which he assured them he’d do.”

Spicer also said Trump vowed to use public-private partnerships to help rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure; expedite the approval process for future aviation projects; and roll out a comprehensive tax reform plan that would reduce the burden on businesses.

“We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax,” Trump said during the meeting.

Trump also lamented the lack of high-speed rail service in the U.S., saying when “you go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place.”

“I don’t want to compete with your business, but we don’t have one fast train,” Trump said to laughs.

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