Airport improvements, easier access to certain destinations, making aviation less destructive ecologically – and a railroad revolution.
OK, the way we travel isn’t exactly the burning question that will decide the US election, but a second term of Donald Trump’s presidency or the first term of a Joe Biden administration might have radical differences in the industry’s development – not just in the United States, but globally, too.
Trump, famously, is the only President to have owned an airline – Trump Shuttle. It connected Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan airport in Washington, DC, from 1989 to 1992.
Meanwhile, Biden has been a rail commuter for decades, and his much-noted bid to make the United States go greener could have implications for the aviation industry.
Neither has focused on transportation during their campaign. In the middle of a pandemic, there are bigger things on which to concentrate. But with the travel industry decimated by Covid-19, the presidential response could determine whether the industry revives or is crushed beyond repair.
And that goes beyond vacations.
“One of the most important things about the travel industry is its huge impact on the economy,” says Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the US Travel Association.
“It’s not quite as tangible as manufacturing, but any new or renewed administration needs to prioritize it, as it’s the hardest-hit industry. The travel industry has suffered almost 40% of job losses nationwide. Nearly four million travel jobs have been lost in the US since the pandemic, and if we don’t get a relief package by the end of December, we’ll lose another million. We need action quickly.”
So what are the two candidates offering, and how do industry figures believe each could change travel in the United States?
What the candidates say
Trump came to power in 2016 on a ticket promising infrastructure improvements, having called both some of the country’s airports and its rail system “Third World” while campaigning and again as President. He has not released any plans for travel or aviation in his 2020 campaign, however, and the White House did not respond to an emailed request for information.
Meanwhile, Biden covers roads, rail and aviation in his “infrastructure” plan. His “clean energy” plan also touches on transport. There’s no clear timeline or cost projections in his plans, however, and the Biden campaign did not respond to emailed requests for comment either.
“There’s nothing very concrete in what the Biden-Harris campaign team has proposed,” says Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of travel industry research and advisory firm, Atmosphere Research. He also once worked for Trump Shuttle.
“There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve said, but the challenges facing the US are numerous and aviation matters are not at the top of the list. That’s not what he’s campaigning on.”
Responding to the pandemic
For years, the US aviation industry has been in need of airport upgrades and infrastructure improvements, but for Harteveldt, the only thing that matters right now for the industry is getting the pandemic under control.
“The travel industry is reliant on the public health environment being safe enough for people to feel comfortable about traveling,” he says.
“Will there be availability of accurate rapid-result Covid-19 tests that will reduce or eliminate the need for restrictions or quarantines on arrival? Will travelers feel confident enough to make a trip – especially an international trip – if they’re concerned about how their destination is managing the virus?
“If an American in Europe was planning to go home to the US for Thanksgiving, would they still want to take that trip right now?”
Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry blog Cranky Flier, agrees.
“The travel industry needs two things. First, it needs the Covid crisis to be controlled better, and then it needs borders to open. Those go hand in hand. So I think the prospects of borders reopening sooner are likely to be better with a President Biden,” he said.
Snyder says the European Union, followed by the United Kingdom, should be the priorities for opening borders.
“There’s a way to work on testing regimes, try and mitigate the crisis and working towards reopening borders so people can start traveling. We’ve put ourselves in a pretty bad place, but under a President Biden, I think the less adversarial approach would be better.”
Emerson Barnes reckons a Trump administration would concentrate on reciprocity when reopening borders, while a Biden one would be keen to repair international relations – but would ultimately be led by the science. “But if either president were looking at risk levels, I don’t know how much difference there’d be – if it’s a high-risk country, we wouldn’t let them in.”
There is praise for the Trump administration in the emergency money they have given to the travel industry so far, however.
“I want to give them credit for their focus on the payroll support plan for airlines and airports as part of the CARES Act,” says Harteveldt, who also praises Trump for supporting US airlines in an “open skies” disagreement with Middle Eastern airlines dating back to 2015.
Emerson Barnes says that the CARES Act money was assigned when “Congress thought this would be a much shorter timeframe, we’d have a shutdown and then everything would reopen and we’d be OK. We need them to react quickly.”
Her priorities are getting more money for the industry, reopening inbound travel and a stimulus package to get people traveling – with tax breaks.
Harteveldt sees another potential border-related change under a Biden presidency.
“It’s unlikely to happen under a Trump administration, but US airlines would very much like an ‘open sky’ agreement with China” – where governments give airlines from both sides unlimited rights to fly between the two – says Harteveldt.
For passengers, this could end up reducing fares by increasing capacity, and it could open up routes from regional airports to China’s major cities. For the airlines, it would open up cargo capacity – particularly crucial at a time when passenger numbers are at a historic low.
“If a Biden administration had a more cooperative view, maybe we’d see the framework for an agreement created within four years,” Harteveldt reckons. Snyder isn’t so sure, however, citing Biden’s potential concern about human rights violations in China.
Of course, Trump also has a more famous border issue to his name. His brief ban on visitors from numerous Muslim-majority countries in 2017 also hit the headlines.
“He hasn’t done anything that’s necessarily harmful directed at aviation itself, but some of his policies have made travel difficult, starting with the ban on people coming from Muslim-majority countries, and making it more difficult to get visas to come to the US,” says Harteveldt.
Emerson Barnes agrees: “I think that, Covid aside, the visa-processing issues and visitors’ ability to get into the US would definitely be easier under a Biden administration,” she says.
Aside from the pandemic, both Harteveldt and Snyder agree that aviation infrastructure needs to be improved – and fast.
After all, both candidates have called US airports “Third World.” Trump singled out New York’s LaGuardia, Newark and JFK, while campaigning in September 2016 and repeated it in the first half of his presidency, while then-Vice President Biden had made the same remark about LaGuardia in 2014, in a speech calling for infrastructure improvement.
“When demand is back to normal, the real bottleneck will be airport infrastructure,” says Snyder. “Before Covid, the biggest airports were very congested, and airlines wanting to serve them couldn’t get in.”
Trump hasn’t released any plans for airports, and while Snyder says the President has “indicated he’s a fan of infrastructure, he hasn’t done anything about it.”
Trump did make an attempt to privatize the air traffic control system in 2017, but it was rebuffed by Congress the following year. And in January 2018, he took credit in a tweet for the lack of aviation-related deaths in 2017. Both Harteveldt and Snyder dismiss this claim.
But they also say that Biden’s plans listed by his campaign – to “make our airports the best in the world” by doubling funding for the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program and backing the ongoing NextGen technology system – don’t mean much by themselves.
“Either president would need to focus on airport infrastructure,” says Harteveldt. “Lots have rebuilt terminals, but it’s the runways and taxiways that need repair. LaGuardia Airport is having its terminal rebuilt, but the runway configuration hasn’t changed. JFK, LAX, SFO – they all need additional runway capacity. All it means is that you walk through a lovely [new] terminal to then sit in a line of two dozen airplanes waiting to take off.”
Emerson Barnes reckons that a Biden win might also mean a narrow victory for the Democrats in the Senate, now controlled by Republicans. Coupled with Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives, “you get more money on infrastructure – more dollars for infrastructure and more support for big projects – that would be positive,” she says.
“Under Trump, you’d still get infrastructure, but I just don’t think it’d be as big.”
Making aviation less destructive
Since President Trump announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017 (the withdrawal is due to take place on November 4, 2020), it might be a surprise if his administration took an interest in making aviation more environmentally friendly.
Biden’s plans mention green technology in aviation as part of a plan to invest $400 billion in clean energy research over a decade. He talks of making planes more fuel efficient, but as Harteveldt notes, “the industry has already begun that” – albeit not at a pace that is providing breakthroughs in the time that is needed as the climate crisis worsens.
But both Harteveldt and Snyder agree that a Biden presidency would focus on “greening” the industry. What’s up for debate is how he’d do it.
“If he followed the UK and introduced an APD [air passenger duty, a tax levied on passengers flying out of the UK] and tried to restrict things instead of encouraging the development of green technology, and investing in research and development, I think it would probably not succeed. But if the focus goes onto working with Boeing, Airbus and anyone else in creating green technology and providing funding if necessary, that could be a helpful path forward,” says Snyder.
A rail revolution?
Biden’s plans include a chunk on rail travel, in which he vows to make America’s rail system “the cleanest, safest and fastest in the world.” Given that the network remains pretty much unchanged since 1971, that’s a bold proposal.
And although it couldn’t be achievable in a two-term presidency, let alone one, Jim Mathews – president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association – thinks that Biden’s ambition is “doable.”
Their plan for Amtrak is to connect “megaregions” across the US – connected suburban areas, such as the Northeast Corridor, Gulf Coast and Great Lakes area – by 2050.
Many of the places that would benefit from new connectivity are cities which have seen their air connections decline in recent years, such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Memphis, Tennessee. And the Rail Passengers Association says they have evidence to show that investment in rail pays off in terms of the economy for the communities involved.
Althought Trump has not released plans for transportation in this election cycle, over the past four years he hasn’t exactly seemed rail-friendly.
“President Trump campaigned [in 2016] on bringing high-speed rail to the US but has done nothing to achieve that,” says Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of Policy + Government Affairs at the Rail Passengers Association.
A positive future
However, there is bipartisan support for railway improvements, say the pair – which means that if Trump made good on his 2016 promises, or if Biden went ahead with his plans, it’s likely they would go ahead.
“Every single year the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would zero out, or very badly curtail, long-distance train service,” says Mathews. “And every year, the House and Senate has put the money back. There’s support coalescing both on left and right.”
The Biden plans talk about increasing electrification in the railway system, which is not solely environment-focused; it’s also an initial step in preparing a high-speed rail network.
Nobody could build a high-speed rail network, or connect those megaregions in four or eight years, but Mathews says there are things already underway that “could be sped up” – such as electrification in the railway system or improving the Northeast Corridor. “Things could move very quickly in places,” he says.
“A lot of us are guilty of zeroing in on the shiny object,” he says. “Sure, TGV [France’s high-speed rail network] would be cool but it’s not necessary to see dramatic improvements. With targeted investment across the network in rails, ballast, straightening curves or installing new signaling, you could get average speeds of up to 79 mph. At the moment there are places where the average is 25 mph.”
The aviation experts agree. Harteveldt thinks a Biden presidency “may explore developing a more comprehensive transport policy.”
Big brother technology
Emerson Barnes thinks there’s one other thing that distinguishes the two candidates – something that’s not in either manifesto. Biometrics.
Frequent travelers enrolled on the Global Entry program generally have their passport and fingerprint checked on entering the country, but 15 airports use facial biometrics instead – and in January, it was announced that this would be rolled out across the country.
She thinks it could go even further, being used at TSA lines and potentially as part of a Covid-free travel app to get the world moving again.
“I’m hopeful that one [positive] of Covid would be to advance our use of biometrics because people will want touchless solutions,” she says.
“But I think a Trump administration would go further. There’s more concern around privacy from Democrats.”
So although travel may not be at the top of the agenda for the politicians, there’s still much to play for, whoever wins the election.
But in the meantime, they’re sure of one thing: The industry needs support.
“It even goes beyond the economics – it’s about diplomacy,” says Emerson Barnes. “[Travel’s] ability to help bridge between countries and people is really important.”