You’ll get little argument from either side of the political aisle that President Donald J. Trump is a braggart, who often laces his speeches with grandiose statements and promises—some true, some not-so-true, some achievable, some not-so-achievable.
But when the CEOs of five major U.S. airlines and several aviation executives sat down for a meeting with Trump last week, it wasn’t so much what they heard but what they didn’t hear.
There was no bravado, no cocksure messages, not even the usual raising of the voice.
When it came to the prickly subject of Open Skies Agreements and the big three U.S. airlines’ battle with their Middle East counterparts, there was only a restrained, conciliatory Trump.
That was not good news for people like Ed Bastian and Oscar Munoz—the CEOs of Delta Air Lines and United Airlines—nor for Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines who skipped the White House shindig for a company function since he falls in line with Munoz and Bastian and felt they could handle it.
This, however, was a different Donald Trump.
This was a Donald Trump wearing two hats: President of the United States and lifelong businessman.
“We know you are under pressure from a lot of foreign elements and foreign carriers,” Trump told the airline executives.
Then the hammer.
"At the same time, we want to make life good for them also," he added. "They come with big investments. In many cases, they're investments that are made by their governments, but they are still big investments."
Among other American aviation companies, the Gulf airlines in question (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) do billions of dollars worth of business with airplane manufacturer Boeing.
While the U.S. big three have alleged their Middle East counterparts receive government subsidies, circumventing the spirit of the Open Skies Agreements, altering the lucrative global travel marketplace and poaching American jobs, Trump knows the Gulf carriers add to—or, at the very least, sustain—American jobs as well.
This is the fine line, the tightrope, that Trump must navigate with the airlines. He must keep his campaign promises to promote American business first, yet he must pacify foreign companies that do billions of dollars in business in the U.S.
There is no easy answer here.
In some respects, you can see U.S. airlines beginning to change to compete with both ends of the spectrum, having introduced both basic economy fares with rock bottom prices that do not allow access to overhead bins, to complete re-makes of their business and first-class cabins. That had long been a point by the Gulf airlines, that their flights are chosen on international routes to the U.S. because of their luxuriousness.
But, if the claims of $50 billion in government subsidies for the Middle East carriers made by U.S. airlines is true, there is going to be little more that domestic carriers can do.
The President is going to have to find a happy medium somewhere between a total freeze on U.S. routes by the Gulf airlines, and a completely hands-off approach so as not to discourage American business, including the powerful aviation unions aligned with the U.S. airlines.
For once, we are going to have to see a more pragmatic Donald Trump.