Which way we travel is not necessarily the burning issue that will determine the US election, but the second term of the presidency of Donald Trump or the first term of the administration of Joe Biden may have drastic differences in the growth of the industry, not only in the United States, but worldwide as well.
Trump is considered to be the first president to own an airline — the Trump Shuttle. From 1989 to 1992, Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, DC were linked.
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.
“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?
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.”
Interaction with 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.
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.