I just returned from our Marketing and Communications conference in Sacramento, California. The airport there just opened a brand new terminal (for which Gregg Saretsky, CEO of WestJet Airlines and our keynote speaker, congratulated the airport — both for improving the infrastructure and for bringing it in well under what some thought it might cost).
I really like this meeting. A lot of airport directors come to the meeting, as do a number of airline executives, mostly on the air service and route development side. I always find the atmosphere at the meeting to be a good one.
On the policy side though I am often baffled. If you’ve read my speech in Denver you will know that I see the airline industry acting today much the same way the steel and auto industries did in the 60′s and 70′s not terribly interested in new investment in the future and overly certain of the future,only to be reduced to relying on protectionism in the late 70′s and 80′s. I do not want to see that future for airlines or for aviation in general.
And now, I see the airlines are making a new argument. They’ve been talking about the need for a “national airline policy”. Not “aviation” but “airline”. But they are now saying that airlines can indeed be profitable, can be good capitalists, if only the government will give them certain things.
This reminds me of what our agricultural sector was saying in the 70′s and 80′s. I remember meeting with an agricultural group when I worked on the Hill. They came in and said that they were indeed good capitalists, good business people, if the government would give them a good price they could be successful. It made me shake my head then and I thought about that when I read the airlines’ latest argument. And it doesn’t make me feel good. Like steel and autos, agriculture was reduced to protectionism and special favor seeking. Like steel and autos, they finally figured out it would take more than that, figured out the past could not be preserved and started to invest in the future. And the results have showed.
Airlines like to say that China and other competitors have “airline” policies. NO. What they do have is “aviation” policies. They invest in infrastructure, in the future. That is their advantage. I wish the airlines better understood that. (By the way, they also invest in airline manufacturing in some of those countries, wonder if there will be complaints later about that).
I WANT the airlines to succeed financially. There are some ways in which government policy can be improved. But to argue against doing the kind of investment in airport infrastructure that is occurring in the regions they seem to envy makes no sense. To begin to argue for protectionist measures is not encouraging. To argue that they can make money if only the government will give them tax breaks, loan guarantees or cash, is also not encouraging.
Let me say again, I want airlines to succeed and I do think there are legitimate points to be made. NextGen progress has been too slow (partly due to airline indifference or opposition in the past, but that’s another subject). I want to work with them on this, on fighting the EU ETS and other matters (and indeed we do work together on many things). I just wish we could extend that to financial issues, and the arguments they make did not bring back such bad memories of failed arguments and proposals from the era of leisure suits and eight tracks.