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President Donald Trump talks with aviation executives. (White House Photo via Pool)

Airline and airport executives, including Alaska Air Group’s CEO, had their turn today to talk with President Donald Trump, who promised them lower taxes and fewer regulations as well as improvements in aviation infrastructure.

“We’re going to be announcing something … over the next two or three weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax, and developing our aviation infrastructure,” Trump told the group of more than a dozen industry leaders during the White House meeting.

The president also hinted that he wants to make big changes at the Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic control system, relying in part on advice from his own pilot.

“I have a pilot who’s a real expert, and he said, ‘Sir, the equipment they’re putting on is just the wrong stuff,'” Trump said, according to a White House transcript of the meeting. “We’ll talk about that, because if we’re going to modernize our systems, we should be using the right equipment.”

Trump suggested that Brad Tilden, the president and CEO of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group, agreed with him on that point. “I know Mr. Tilden is nodding,” the president said. “You know what I mean.”

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly set the tone for the conversation, telling Trump that “we need to address the fundamental organization” of air traffic management while leaving safety and regulatory oversight as government functions.

Kelly favored creating a not-for-profit corporation to take on the management of the nation’s air traffic, with representatives from commercial airlines, general aviation and the government on the corporation’s board.

“We want the government out of managing the air traffic control system so that it can be adequately managed, adequately financed – and we can get this done,” Kelly said. “We won World War II in three and a half years, we ought to be able to modernize air traffic control.”

The FAA and other agencies are in the midst of a $40 billion initiative known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. but the program has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. In 2015, the National Research Council issued a critical report that said “‘NextGen’ has become a misnomer” and advised the FAA to “reset expectations” for the program.

“I hear we’re spending billions and billions of dollars,” Trump said. “It’s a system that’s totally out of whack. It’s way over budget, it’s way beyond schedule, and when it’s completed, it’s not going to be a good system. Other than that, it’s OK.”

For years, lawmakers have been debating the idea of privatizing the air traffic control system. The concept has gained traction, especially among Republicans. But in a statement issued last month, Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., blamed the airlines for air traffic disruptions and said “we remain unconvinced that privatizing the air traffic control system would lead to improvement.”

The president seemed receptive to Kelly’s call for an overhaul but made no commitments during the meeting.

Today’s meeting produced a number of other nuggets:

  • Trump signaled that he’ll name a pilot to head the FAA. The current administrator, Michael Huerta, has long experience in information technology and transportation management, but is not a certified pilot. “Being a pilot would be helpful, because … I hear the government contracted this system that’s the wrong system, and I hear that from pilots,” Trump said.
  • Joe Lopano, the CEO of Tampa International Airport in Florida, suggested that the $4.50 passenger-facility charge could be raised to help pay for airport modernization. But Trump replied that “I don’t like raising fees or taxes. … I understand what you’re saying, but $4.50 – it’s a lot when you look at all of the passengers.”
  • Trump suggested that the money for modernization would come from cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. “We’re spending so much money overseas, fighting wars, doing things, and frankly, making horrible trade deals,” he said. “So don’t worry about the money. I’ll be able to get the money.”

For more from the meeting, including the list of industry representatives in attendance, check out the White House transcript.

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