President Donald Trump told U.S. airlines he would help them compete with foreign carriers that he said are subsidized by their governments, a crucial signal of White House support for a long-running industry campaign that began in 2015.
“You’ve got a lot of competition,” Trump said at a White House meeting Thursday with the nation’s largest airlines, air freight companies and airports. “A lot of that competition is subsidized by governments, big league.”
Active involvement by Trump would answer two years of prodding by Delta Air Lines, United Continental Holdings and Fort Worth-based American Airlines Group to act on claims that $50 billion in government support have enabled three Persian Gulf carriers to compete unfairly. The airlines asked last week to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss their allegations against Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways.
Representatives for the Persian Gulf carriers didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The airlines have disputed the claims of their U.S. rivals.
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Trump made his comments as part of a wide-ranging discussion in which he also called for improvements to airports, roads and rails. He didn’t say what steps he might consider. He said he’d seek to help domestic carriers while also encouraging foreign airlines and the “big investments” they make in the U.S.
The Obama administration said it would hold discussions with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates last year but never took formal action. The airlines want the U.S. to convene talks on whether the subsidies violate international agreements governing air travel. Some companies at the Thursday meeting, including JetBlue Airways and FedEx, oppose such talks.
Trump also said much of the nation’s transportation infrastructure needed significant improvements.
“We have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete trains, we have obsolete airports, we have bad roads,” he said. “And we’re going to change all that.”
He also called the air-traffic control system “outdated.” Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly called for the government to get out of the system, a position supported by most major airlines except Delta. The conversation with Trump was focused on infrastructure investment, regulation and taxes, Kelly told Bloomberg Television.
“I was delighted to see how well aligned we are,” Kelly told reporters after the meeting.
“You people are regulated probably as much as anybody,” Trump said. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the two or three weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax and developing our aviation infrastructure.”
The president’s Jan. 27 order barring U.S. entry for refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries didn’t come up in the meeting, Kelly said. A federal appeals court is considering whether to reinstate the ban, which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge on Feb. 3.