Getting an opportunity to put your business case directly to the president might not come along very often. But that hasn’t stopped a growing minority of CEOs from politely declining invites to meet Donald Trump, and risking the ire of various interest groups, including the White House.
In the most recent case of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, it wasn’t Trump who responded coldly—at least not publicly—to his decision to skip last week’s meeting with other airline chiefs. Instead, it was many of the company’s pilots who felt that Parker had missed an opportunity to push their case for protecting local jobs and conditions.
“Mr. Parker’s decision to skip the meeting with President Trump has shaken our confidence in his judgment,” Dan Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, said in a tersely-worded statement. “If President Trump were to invite me and other labor leaders from the airline industry to the White House to discuss the issues confronting airline workers, I would have only one question: How fast can I get there?”
Though elected on a pro-business agenda, Trump’s protectionist leanings have made him an unlikely friend of labor unions. The airline industry is particularly concerned about the rise of Middle Eastern carriers, which local CEOs, including Parker, have claimed are heavily subsidized by their governments and therefore competing unfairly.
Many airline executives and pilots also were upset by the Obama administration’s decision last year to allow low-cost carrier Norwegian Air to fly to the U.S.
For his part, Parker had told company staff last week that he couldn’t meet Trump for simple scheduling reasons. Parker already was booked to address the final day of the airline’s annual leadership conference.
“Unfortunately, in our divided political climate, some assume my not being there was a political statement,” Parker said. “Nothing could be further from the truth—I would have happily attended the meeting and would like to have been able to do so.”
Parker was a critic of Trump’s travel ban, once describing it as “divisive.”
Indeed, as several other CEOs have discovered, attending meetings with Trump can attract criticism, too. Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, was attacked furiously by many customers for agreeing to sit on Trump’s economic advisory council, which he subsequently quit on the eve of its first meeting.
Disney CEO Bob Iger wasn’t there either, though, like Parker, he had to be someplace else. In Iger’s case, it was a Disney board meeting that trumped the president.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also was notably absent from a December meeting between Trump and tech CEOs, which was instead attended by the company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg. It still isn’t clear why Zuckerberg, who has criticized Trump’s immigration policies, wasn’t at Trump Tower that day.