Play-By-Play Inside the Oval Office Meeting With Airline CEOs That Delta Skipped

Josh Lederman did excellent reporting, talking to 10 people inside or briefed on the Oval Office meeting that President Trump had with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, and the CEOs of Fedex, JetBlue, and Atlas Air — plus the CEO of Qatar Airways — that Delta CEO Ed Bastian declined to show up for, citing ‘other travel’ that he presumably felt was more important.

White House trade advisor Peter Navarro pushed for the meeting. He’s the chief architect of the administration’s protectionist policies. Meanwhile the lobby group representing American, Delta, and United was airing television commercials during “Fox & Friends” on Fox News, took out a full page ad flattering the President, and together wrote an op-ed in USA Today that rivals anything the President himself has ever said in terms of its mendacity.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker with Donald and Melania Trump in 2007, via Doha News

The Delta-American-United strategy was to get the President involved, hoping “his protectionist tendencies and desire to prop up U.S. job-creators would make him inclined to take the side of the big U.S. airlines.

Qatar, for its part, had just signed a deal a week earlier – in front of the President – for new Boeing jets and GE engines.

The meeting was set up as follows: airline CEOs seated around the Resolute Desk, with administration aides on nearby couches:

  • John Bolton, National Security Advisor
  • Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President for Trade and Manufacturing Policy
  • Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council
  • Mick Mulvaney, Acting Chief of Staff
  • Senator Jim Risch, Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  • Stephanie Grisham, White House Press Secretary

Trump opened, “I’ve been seeing all these ads — what’s up with these ads?” And the meeting “quickly turned to confrontation.”

  • Qatar Airways CEO Al Baker “called the American and United CEOs “liars.'”
  • Trump “ribbed him back, telling al Baker he takes money from the Qatari government.”
  • Fred Smith, CEO of Fedex, offered statistics on the importance of cargo to U.S. jobs and argued these would be at risk if the administration weighed in to help United, American, and Delta.
  • Trump “kept bringing up the absence of Bastian, the Delta CEO.” The President kept returning to this. And in Bastian’s absence he ‘scolded’ Delta “for buying billions in planes from the European firm Airbus while Qatar Airways is buying its jets from Chicago-based Boeing Co.”
  • Ultimately Trump told the U.S. airlines that they have to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation, something they’ve never done because they don’t have a substantive claim under U.S. law.

The meeting lasted an hour, during which “there was a lot of yelling.” I think my favorite part has to be that “the president ribbed American Airlines CEO Doug Parker over his company’s flagging stock price, asking why it’s so low at a time when the stock market is surging.”

Apparently the President basically tweeted this, but delivered in person:

(Not an Actual Tweet)

The meeting was largely seen as a win for Bolton (who wants Qatar’s help in the region countering Iran) — and Kudlow (who knows the economic case the U.S. airlines were making was absurd) over Navarro (whose heroes seem to be Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Shocker, a Trump meeting was a sh*tshow. I despise al-Baker but kudos to him for having the balls that Bastian apparently doesn’t.

  2. Good god. You have put plenty of articles on your site that are terrible, but I think this one might top them all. By all means, it is yours to do with af you see fit, but this is so beneath what it is you do well. Clicks and credit card referrals is all that matters though.

  3. @02nz

    Not sure why you would say that based on this description

    Sounds like Trump listened to all the players, recognized that the benefit to the US from having Fedex/Atlas Air having free trade to the Middle East and Qatar buying US planes outweighed Delta’s protectionist claims and expressed why Delta didn’t show up to a meeting with a room of airline CEO’s. Plenty of things to criticize Trump on but this isn’t one of them.

  4. So Delta got Parker and Munoz to attend the meeting and Delta sends no one! Delta makes fools of AA and UA over and over. AA and UA would probably fall for the Charlie Brown field goal routine if Delta was holding the ball.

  5. Next time, Trump should ask the US3 how their cozy relationships with the SUBSIDIZED CHINESE airlines works out.

  6. If only the truth be told how the big 3 make their billions off the backs of employees- but try and outsource them- total Hippocrates. Plus if only you knew how they by pass every law to deny workman’s compensation and judges rulings. They think they are untouchable, the rules don’t apply to their billions.

  7. You’re analysis is obviously biased to your pro-ME3 position. What could be said is that the President is willing to sell out the major US airlines for other important US interests in the Middle East because the harm done by the ME3 to them is modest. The harm is modest because the money losing ME3 flights are so un-economic and to such a distant corner of the world that there’s a natural limit. to them. That is certainly what we’ve been seeing in recent years — nobody can afford to lose billions forever. So if the unfair competition costs the US airlines a couple hundred million in profits — when they’re making billions — Trump is willing to put other national interests ahead of their complaints.

  8. I would have paid a pretty penny to hear Drumpf making fun of the horrible job Dougie is doing. I disagree with literally everything Drumpf says or does but that is hilarious and I’ll give him credit.

  9. chopsticks is also a loser. I don’t agree with 90% of what Trump says but seems like he might have actually been “fair and balanced” on this issue. Ha what a joke. What happened to capitalistic competition?

  10. Great informative post. So in the end, it came down to the U.S. DoD’s need for basing troops in Qatar and jobs at Boeing and GE over the whining of the US3 CEOs. Pretty embarrassing for Delta not to even send their #2 to the meeting.

  11. QR was a Trump building tenant and it’s CEO has repeatedly hosted and met with Trump even before Trump’s inauguration.

    Al-Baker did his grooming of Trump well.

    Even if DL’s CEO showed up, it wouldn’t make a difference.

  12. chopsticks,

    Gary’s position is not biased by a pro-ME3 position. His position is biased by being in favor of a more laissez-faire approach to businesses doing whatever individual businesses want to do with little to no government intervention getting in the way of a business doing what a business wants to do.

    My position is to welcome government regulation that increases competition and empowers consumers. In this case that means I am glad that the Administration doesn’t seem eager to do the bidding of the US3 airlines and block the ME3 from competing and doing so for the benefit of consumers.

  13. @GUWonder, good for him. He needed to be in the thick of things or else there would be no counterbalance to the bs that would have been sewed by the TWO US airlines in attendance.

  14. Sullyofdoha

    I am more than happy that the ME3 aren’t being run over by the US3 and the US3’s EU3 bosom buddies. And I think QR has done a favor to consumers by having avoided a bad railroading by the US3 and the USG …. at least for now.

  15. We can only hope that CEO Parker is so “successful” at AA that he is recruited by one of the ME3, where in practically no time at all, his management theories will put that carrier 10 years behind the US3.

    Amazing how the BS flies unchecked, given how the same US3 invest in Chinese carriers, outsource maintenance and reservations, and before the Alabama plant, were purchasing Airbus products. The one point they have full control over is to appreciate what “competition” means, and to step-up their game.

    Instead, Parker who assiduously works to become Amtrak’s next CEO, complains about the un-level field berating the more competitive ME3, as he concomitantly installs his Oasis design he is so tone deaf how that will chase more revenue passengers away. Oh, let’s not forget to mention Parker’s pathetic domestic first meals, a menu apparently planned at Guantanamo.

  16. Random thoughts:

    — Once again, Delta shows how smart and well-run the company is by getting AA and UA to make fools of themselves. (And yes, Parker and Muñoz WOULD fall for the Charlie Brown football trick — and have, dozens of times as Bastian continues to “yank the football away.”)
    — That the US3 have a weak argument comes as no surprise. The surprise, for me, is that Trump failed to bite. Then again, I guess I’m underestimating the influence Bolton and Kudlow have over him. The WH actually made the right decision, telling the US3 to file a formal complaint with the DOT.
    — As for “scolding” DL for buying planes from Airbus, speaking strictly from a personal basis, most of flights I take are either on 737s or A320s (in their many variations). I prefer to fly Airbus in this category. I just find them generally to be more comfortable and, except for the 737-900s, the bin space to be larger. C’est la vie…

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