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Airline Chiefs Focus On Air Traffic Control In White House Meeting With Trump

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The chief executives of Alaska Airlines, Southwest and Delta Air Lines had positive reactions after a White House meeting with President Donald Trump Thursday morning.

The airline chiefs skirted around the fraught topic of President Trump's travel ban from seven Middle Eastern and African countries. The conversation in the State Dining Room instead focused on how to improve air traffic control.

A stalled proposal in Congress would spin off management of air traffic in U.S. skies from the federal government into a private, nonprofit corporation funded by user fees.

Alaska Airlines, among others, supports this in hopes it will speed the roll out of new technology. Delta Air Lines though opposes privatization, fearing it will increase costs for travelers too much.

"I hear we're spending billions and billions of dollars, it's a system that's totally out of whack," Trump said of the current Federal Aviation Administration modernization project. "It’s way over budget, it’s way beyond schedule, and when it’s completed, it’s not going to be a good system."

According to the White House press pool report, Trump said that the system could potentially work better if the FAA were run by a pilot. The current FAA administrator is a career government and private sector executive in the fourth year of a five year term.

In a post-meeting statement, Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden characterized the meeting with the president as "very positive."

"We’re optimistic that we’ll see changes come about that are beneficial for all of the people who depend upon the airline industry," Tilden said.

Other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom have successfully privatized air traffic control.

Another controversial topic that came up was the competition the major U.S. carriers are getting from growing Persian Gulf and low-fare trans-Atlantic airlines. Trump indicated he shared some of the carriers' concerns about what he termed "a pretty unfair situation," but left in the air what if any action he might take.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian obliquely referenced his company's disputed allegations of unfairly subsidized competition from the big three Middle Eastern carriers at the end of an upbeat statement.

"At Delta, we plan to hire 25,000 people over the next five years with the support of a level playing field globally," Bastian said.

Bastian and Tilden were joined at the long meeting table by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, JetBlue Airways President Robin Hayes, several cargo carrier leaders and the heads of major airports including New York/New Jersey, Chicago, Tampa, Buffalo and Los Angeles.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and economic advisor Gary Cohn had seats at the table as well. The industry lobbying group Airlines for America helped to organize the White House meeting.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.