Trump vs. Clinton: What the U.S. Election Holds for Aviation and Aerospace
The 2016 United States general election has reached a fever pitch, and predictably there are hordes of different special interests vying for a slice of the promotional pie. For those of us in the industry, aviation unfortunately gets lost in the shuffle of topics. Even though every elected political leader uses commercial aviation extensively, it is hardly a controversial industry or topic, especially when compared to hot-button topics such as foreign affairs or climate change (even though it is indelibly intertwined with most issues in one way or another).
It is fair to say that the eyes of the world on are the two primary candidates on the ticket this year, and one way or another it will be either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump being sworn into office come January. What exactly are their positions on the aviation industry? This is certainly a topic of interest and concern in the industry, and the answer is more interpretation and nuance than hard facts and firm positions because neither candidate has a dedicated platform on the issue.
The Democratic party has long been bolstered by worker’s unions, and airlines as well as aerospace industry leaders have long been unionized. Clinton's argument is that as major industries move away from mass unionization, the workers lose their bargaining ability for fair wage increases and benefits. She also states that capitalism is not working, citing price gouging in various unrelated industries, the insinuation being that the only control which can be effectively implemented is further regulation. This is a market-wide approach, not aviation specific, but it will impact aviation. Regulation, particularly the forced implementation of unionization, may further serve to stifle the economic development. Labor unions are dwindling generally because workers are rejecting them, not corporate executives. The union wages are far costlier than any protection that they purportedly offer, and workers are choosing to vote with their feet. Workers can easily see where major companies, such as Detroit’s “Big 3” have gone bankrupt in large part due to enormous debts owed to bargaining agreements.
Mrs. Clinton has stated in her Vision for America, a goal to “Invest in building world-class American airports and modernize our national airspace system.” Modernizing the national airspace system has been recognized universally as a necessity. The national airspace system has been outdated for literally decades, with calls for air traffic reform coming since the 1980s. The Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization Act (AIRR) was proposed earlier this year, but was too late to get through the House of Representatives in time for the March 31st deadline for FAA reauthorization. Part of this bill is to implement a privatized ATC system like Canada’s NAV Canada. Given her general feeling of failure in capitalism, it is highly unlikely that she will entertain any bill like this. As far as the designing and backing of new commercial airports is concerned, this is highly unlikely. The FAAs grant program is not funded for an undertaking of this size, and the technical magnitude of designing, approving, and executing a public airport is gargantuan, which is why the last hub-airport built was Denver International, commencing operation on February 28th, 1995. Denver International came in 16 months late and nearly $2 billion over budget. People like new things, but airports are very difficult to make new for so many reasons. History indicates that Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric, while sounding promising to the aviation industry, is not likely to come to fruition, and considering the country's debt, where would the money come from to begin with?
Donald Trump has been iconic in American business for many years now, thanks in no small part to his grandiose personality, monolithic buildings bearing his name, and fleets of aircraft and yachts (again bearing his gold standard). As expected, his official platform is set to starkly contrast his opposition, but it looks on paper, rather similar. He calls for a similar boost in national airspace system modernization, and investments in critical infrastructure which airports would fall under. Again, this sounds appealing but simple math suggests there is a lot more to this than campaign promises. Opportunities already exist within the FAA to request infrastructure grants, and often airport modernization programs are funded through venture capital in anticipation of future returns. The question to Mr. Trump is the same as to Mrs. Clinton: where will the money be coming from?
The aviation industry has reason to be skeptical about either candidate. But more importantly, aviation has a greater reason to be optimistic, regardless of who is elected. Since neither candidate has expended much campaign energy on the topic specifically (nor have many other presidential hopefuls over the years), it is fair to say that aviation and aerospace remain outside of their purview. Regardless of which camp has been in office, aviation has continued to grow at a steady rate annually and is projected to continue that trend. ATC modernization is unavoidable and must be addressed seriously at some critical juncture. That discussion will begin in the House, and move through all of congress before hitting the President’s desk. Regardless of party lines, it seems unlikely that this measure will risk veto once it gets to the Executive branch, since it is not a polarizing issue.
The aviation industry has the revenue to be self-sustaining, and the projected growth to back infrastructure renovations on its own. The best bet for infrastructure growth and modernization is probably to politely ask both political parties to respectfully bow out and leave it up to the stakeholders to secure funds.
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