As Winter Storm Niko blanketed the Northeast in the snow last week, disrupting scores of flights in the U.S., airline executives convened in Washington to talk shop with President Donald Trump.
Back in November, I wrote that domestic carriers are likely to see the new president—himself the former owner of the now-defunct Trump Airlines—as a strong partner in several key areas. Although a couple of airline CEOs have recently expressed strong opposition to some of Trump’s protectionist immigration policies, Thursday’s meeting appeared to be constructive, with the president telling the group he would soon be announcing something “phenomenal in terms of tax and developing our aviation infrastructure.”
Details of the tax plan, he said, would likely be announced sometime in the next two or three weeks. This rejuvenated some of the spirit that swept through the market soon after his election, reassuring investors that reform would come sooner than expected.
Among other topics discussed at the meeting were the need for airport infrastructure improvements, industry deregulation, air traffic control and U.S. carriers’ competitive disadvantage to heavily-subsidized Persian Gulf carriers. Three state-owned Gulf carriers, in particular, have received as much as $50 billion in subsidies from Middle Eastern governments since 2004, which allow them “to operate without concern for turning a profit,” according to a letter addressed to Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, and signed by three U.S. airline CEOs, including Doug Parker of American Airlines, Edward Bastian of Delta Air Lines and Oscar Munoz of United Airlines. U.S. airlines, obviously, do not have the same privilege, putting them at a competitive disadvantage in the international market. Encouraging the Gulf states to end subsidization, as the CEOs hope, would be a huge win for domestic carriers and their workers.
The market seemed to like what it heard, as the NYSE Arca Airline Index rallied close to 2.3 % Thursday. This was the biggest one-day move for the group in about a month, during which Trump’s executive immigration ban grounded airline stocks.
The selloff following the executive order was overdone, I think, but it gave airline investors such as Warren Buffett an attractive buying opportunity.
Speaking of which, we learned last week that Buffett was convinced to bet big on the industry, reversing his famously negative opinion of the group, after being in attendance at one of Doug Parker’s investor presentations last March. Parker told attendees that consolidation had fundamentally transformed the industry, making it efficient and focused on demand.