Trump meets with airline CEOs, promises to fix obsolete ATC system

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US President Donald Trump has promised US airline executives that he will roll back regulations on the industry, ease carriers’ tax burden and upgrade an “obsolete” air traffic control (ATC) system.

During a more than hour-long meeting at the White House with airline CEOs and airport directors, Trump lamented what he considers to be the poor state of transportation in the US and signaled significant change. “We’ve got an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. We’re going to change all of that, folks,” the president told the airline and airport executives in a portion of the meeting that media was allowed to video-record. “You’re going to be so happy with Trump … I want to be able to do things for you.”

Trump said that “rolling back burdensome regulations” will be one of the key ways he will help airlines. He also said a “big league” plan to lower corporate taxes, to be announced within 2-3 weeks, will be “phenomenal” for airlines.

Meeting attendees included Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, Southwest Airlines chairman and CEO Gary Kelly, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, Alaska Air Group chairman and CEO Brad Tilden, JetBlue Airways president and CEO Robin Hayes, FedEx Corp. president and COO Dave Bronczek, United Parcel Service president-US operations Myron Gray, Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings president and CEO Bill Flynn, Airlines for America (A4A) president and CEO Nicholas Calio, Airports Council International-North America president and CEO Kevin Burke and Los Angeles World Airports CEO Deborah Flint. American Airlines chairman and CEO Doug Parker was invited, but unable to attend because of a long-standing commitment to host the company’s annual leadership conference for employees in Dallas. In a statement, Parker said he shared Trump’s commitment to modernizing the nation’s infrastructure and looked forward to working with his administration.

Trump took aim at FAA’s ATC modernization program, known as NextGen. “I hear we’re spending billions and billions of dollars [and] it’s a system that’s totally out of whack,” Trump said in an exchange with Southwest’s Kelly, according to a White House press pool report on a portion of the meeting. Trump said that NextGen is over budget and will not produce a good ATC system when it is finished. “Other than that, it’s fantastic,” he said.

Trump said he wants airline passengers to have “the greatest customer service with an absolute minimum of delays and with the greatest convenience, all at the lowest possible cost.”

The president said he has a particular interest in air travel and wants to upgrade US aviation infrastructure. “Airports are very important to me,” Trump said. “Travel is very important to me … Our airports used to be the best. Now they’re at the bottom of the rung.”

Speaking to CNBC on the White House lawn following the meeting, Kelly indicated that topics such as Gulf airlines’ competition with US airlines were not broached. Kelly characterized the meeting as a “very general discussion,” adding, “The focus was solely on regulatory reform, tax reform and infrastructure … The biggest opportunity is to speed up the modernization of the air traffic control system.”

Asked if there would be future meetings between Trump and airline executives, Kelly said, “I would be surprised if we’re not back here in 90 days.”

Calio said in a statement issued following the meeting that Trump demonstrated an “in-depth understanding of our industry and [focused on] the need to reform our air traffic control system.”

Burke told reporters in a conference call after the meeting that Trump said four times, “We need to rebuild America’s airports.”

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