Boeing, fresh off a victory in restoring the Export-Import Bank’s full lending authority, is floating the idea of a 100 percent tariff on Airbus aircraft and parts. Airbus is Boeing’s largest competitor. There are four factors in play here. The first three are public relations, the opportunity costs of cronyism, and how best to pursue a level playing field in the global economy. The fourth is the likely retaliation such a move would spark.
From a PR standpoint, Boeing wants to move public attention away from its safety issues with the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Most of the press Boeing gets for Ex-Im and Airbus tariffs will be negative, and the company knows this. It would still likely prefer that people be upset about those than about its safety problems, which are an existential threat to more than just airline passengers.
To that point, Boeing arguing for an Airbus tariff right now is almost perfect news cycle timing. The China trade dispute and NAFTA/USMCA are hot stories. Just today, President Trump announced a six-month delay on a possible European auto tariff, which will both keep that story alive for a while and give Boeing time to fold an Airbus tariff into a possible action.
Boeing also has a Baptists-and-bootleggers story at the ready. The World Trade Organization ruled, correctly, that Airbus received unfair government subsidies when it launched its A350 and A380 aircraft. Under WTO rules, the U.S. is entitled to retaliate. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it should. An Airbus tariff is highly unlikely to spur needed reform.
This ties into the opportunity costs of cronyism. Boeing puts significant resources into lobbying for Export-Import Bank support, Airbus tariffs, and other preferential policies. All of those resources are not being used to address the 737 MAX safety issues. This might improve a decimal point somewhere in a quarterly earnings report in the short term. But Boeing’s misplaced priorities could cause long-term harm to both aviation safety and Boeing’s own competitiveness. Competing in Washington is not the same thing as competing in the marketplace. Boeing’s investors should be upset at the company’s behavior.
Companies that engage in heavy rent-seeking are less profitable than more market-oriented companies. Even in Boeing’s case, the most profitable years in company history happened when Ex-Im was unable to offer its usual financing.
Which brings up the third point: It is not enough to have a level playing field. That level must be raised, not lowered. Boeing is right that Airbus’ massive government subsidies are unfair. But the way to address the problem is not to copy Europe’s policy mistakes. Don’t sink down to their level, raise them up to ours—though, admittedly, our own level of cronyism has much room for improvement. But reformers must start somewhere.
If anything, Boeing might have an interest in further tying up Airbus in webs of subsidies and favorable regulations—though I would strongly disagree with this strategy. Government protection tends to cause sclerosis in its beneficiaries, and Boeing should be pleased at the long-term implications of Airbus’ comfort. I am not a fan of this zero-sum thinking, but Boeing might be. Even from their self-interested perspective, an Airbus tariff is a bad idea.
Finally, as I pointed out yesterday, tariffs are nearly always met with retaliation, not cooperation. The European Union almost certainly will not change its tune on Airbus subsidies in response to a U.S. tariff—especially in a global market with many non-U.S. customers. Europe will harden its stance, likely at Boeing’s expense.
Given how tense global trade relations currently are, even if Boeing is just blowing PR smoke, this is a bad time to do it. Better for the company to refocus on making safe, innovative products than spending its resources on a political game with no winners.