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Going Direct: What Donald Trump’s Election Means To Aviation

A non-partisan look at how the new president’s policies will affect pilots and manufacturers.

It’s been said again and again, and here I am saying it, too. Donald Trump’s ascension to power is unlike any other individual’s in our nation’s history. There has, thank goodness, never, ever been a presidential election like this in the history of the United States, well, except for one. It was a while ago, but the parallels are eerie. Andrew Jackson. When he came to power, Jackson, despite years of public and military service, was an outsider to the Washington elite. As Trump did on Tuesday night, Jackson as the underdog won the presidency on a platform of reform, especially financial reform and a renunciation of the ruling elite.

While President-elect Trump’s transition will likely be a great deal more mainstream than Jackson’s—the 7th president’s inauguration party was essentially a drunken brawl—the election of the first true outsider—no political service and no military service—will almost certainly be a time of widespread contention, as we’re already seeing. The country is divided.

Trump himself is one of the most noteworthy users of business aviation ever. His executive-outfitted Boeing 757 is a major part of the Trump brand, and it’s clear that his use of the jet to reach out to potential voters was a major asset in his successful election campaign.

As far as the President-elect’s first 100 days in office, often seen as the time a new president sets the tone of his presidency, it remains to be seen just how many of his campaign pledges will result in changes to policy. According to a recent story in The New York Times, some of Trump’s aides are already saying that many of the candidate’s promises “should not be taken literally.”

But taking the then-candidate at his word, as he often insisted we should, there are a few key questions that need to be answered before we will know just what kind of impact the new order will have on aviation. Will the Trump administration back out of international trade agreements with China, Mexico and Canada? Will it work to cut the number of laws on the books by 70 percent?

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Aviation, by definition, is a global industry, and large aircraft are built through complicated agreements between the “manufacturer” and hundreds of subcontractors, who supply everything from landing gear to engines to electronics to airframe structures. How will new rules that would strongly limit treaties affect these giant programs, especially at world-leader Boeing? In general aviation, many companies make use of NAFTA provisions to manufacture and assemble components in Mexico. World-famous Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines, widely used by American airframers, are manufactured by the company’s Canadian division. No one expects long-standing relationships between global partners to disappear overnight, but the specifics of many of these partnerships are based on trade agreements. How will a move by the United States toward a more isolationist economic approach affect these businesses? It’s safe to say that no one knows.

On the flip side, thousands of American companies act as suppliers for foreign aircraft makers. Will makers of avionics (like Honeywell, Garmin and Rockwell Collins), of engines (like Honeywell, GE, Pratt & Whitney, Continental and Lycoming ), be affected by changes in policy? In many cases, especially with airliners, there are ready alternatives to U.S.-made engines. Will less friendly trade terms mean a loss of business for these American companies and thousands of others?

Another area of great concern among those in American manufacturing is the suggestion by then-candidate Trump that he would like to cut regulations by as much as 70 percent. While this surely is one of those campaign comments President-elect Trump’s advisors would like us not to take literally, the theme of cutting government regulation is central to Trump’s agenda. We have seen how difficult it is to cut longstanding regs in Washington, and sometimes that’s a fault of an entrenched system more than anything else, as is the case with pilot third-class medical certification. In other areas, like with aircraft certification and airworthiness regulations, it’s entirely unclear how the current rules of the air could be cut by anything like 70 percent and still be meaningful or manageable.

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There’s also the fear that the Trump administration will cozy up to business in an unprecedented way. There’s talk of President-elect Donald Trump appointing a retired oil executive to head the Department of the Interior and a Goldman Sachs alum to lead the Treasury Department. If an airline insider were appointed to head the Department of Transportation or the FAA, or both, it would almost certainly mean the adoption of user fees for airspace access, a reduction in national airspace system access for general aviation aircraft and possibly ratcheting up regulations on pilot medical certification, as both the airlines and the pilots’ unions objected to the 3rd class medical reform that last year passed as part of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2.

Do I know how these questions will ultimately be answered? I absolutely do not. But, then again, no one does, including those in Trump’s transition team, which is currently working on its plan to move in at Pennsylvania Avenue in just over two months’ time.

After Trump’s victory, markets in the United States rallied in impressive fashion after a global downturn on election night. If this trend continues, or holds steady, that signals great things for the industry. Will the stock markets’ almost instant rebound last? Will there be continued confidence that a Trump presidency (with the support of a Republican House and Senate) will buoy the cause of business once new policies are adopted? This remains to be seen. We can only hope the answer is yes, though the proof might truly be found after those first 100 days.

No matter your opinion on his tenure in office, President Obama’s administration wasn’t particularly friendly to aviation. At times, it was downright adversarial, including the President’s comments during his first term that denigrated business aviation, insinuating that it was a wasteful luxury. A Trump presidency will hopefully be a great deal more friendly toward private flying than President Obama’s administration was.

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There are a number of other areas of concern. How will President-elect Trump’s environmental stands affect our industries’ efforts to meet international agreements on noise and pollution, if at all? Will there be a Brexit-style backlash against American business following Trump’s inauguration and promised implementation of tariffs and other anti-global-trade measures? Will China continue to invest in American aviation companies like Cirrus Design, Mooney and Continental Motors if we impose trade sanctions on that country? What about China as a market for American aircraft? Will that go away, too?

All things considered, there are nothing but big questions about how the Trump presidency will affect aviation. As much as his election to office was a vote for blowing up the system, much of aviation depends on a stable and predictable system, so until we have some answers on what policies will be adopted and how, there will remain much uncertainty, which is never good for aircraft markets. So the sooner we know how things will go, the better it will be for aviation’s important slice of the American pie.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

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