President Donald Trump called for a boost in infrastructure spending in a meeting with top U.S. airline and airport executives today, promising to roll back regulations and remake the country's transportation system.
He also voiced support for privatizing America's air traffic control system, according to a top airline industry lobbyist who was in the meeting.
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, who was one of six airport executives invited to the sit-down with Trump, said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that the hour-and-a-half session focused mostly on infrastructure spending and efficiency.
"There's a lot of interest regarding airport infrastructure and generating funding to modernize U.S. airports," Lopano said. "Our president is very supportive of this."
The meeting was spurred by the Airports Council International - North America and other aviation industry groups.
Lopano joined the CEOs of the Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville and Buffalo airports in the meeting. He said it was the first time any of the present airline executives had ever been invited to the White House to discuss the industry. This was also the first time Lopano had met Trump.
"This is a significant change in mind set," said Lopano. "One of the things we talked about was eliminating unnecessary regulations. Airlines and airports are heavily regulated and we talked about taking away a lot of the bureaucratic stumbling blocks."
Lopano said the discussion didn't veer to the controversial travel ban, which has sparked protests at major airports across the country, including a small protest at TIA. But infrastructure spending could include improvements to air traffic control operations for better communication with airplanes.
"He was very responsive to customers' and security needs and agrees that we need to stay ahead of the curve," Lopano said. "He was really just listening to what we had to say."
Lopano has testified before Congress before about funding for airport infrastructure improvements.
Among the sensitive topics discussed at the session was privatizing air traffic control operations.
Nick Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, the trade association that represents the major airlines, said after the White House meeting that Trump was "extraordinarily positive" when airline executives urged him to spin off air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration and place them under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation.
That corporation would most likely be dominated by the major airlines.
Asked if Trump committed to back a bill to do that, Calio said: "I think he's on track to do that."
Airlines have complained the FAA is taking too long to modernize the air traffic system. Republican congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the House transportation committee, introduced legislation to privatize the system last year, but the bill stalled after opposition from other top lawmakers and from business aircraft operators.
Business aircraft operators fear the corporation's board would be dominated by airlines, and that they would lose access to larger airports to make more room for airlines.
Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, told Trump during the meeting the top priority for helping airlines would be to "modernize the air traffic control system." He complained that money spent on the system has not helped improve it in the past.
"I hear we're spending billions and billions of dollars, it's a system that's totally out of whack," Trump said. The president asked why airline corporations had allowed the government to invest in a faulty system. Kelly said airlines are not "in control" of those decisions.
Trump said he believes the system could potentially work better if FAA was run by a pilot. The current administrator, Michael Huerta, a holdover from the Obama administration, isn't a pilot.
FAA officials maintain that they have made significant progress over the past 10 years of the modernization effort, and that airlines have begun to reap the benefits of those changes.
Besides the airport leaders and Southwest, Trump met with the chief executives of Delta, United, and JetBlue and executives from air cargo companies.
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.