Local officials are considering two bids to build 12 jet bridges at Miami International Airport. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A Chinese company once found guilty of stealing information from a U.S. company that manufactures airplane boarding bridges is making a fresh push into American airport markets — and becoming the newest target for anti-China hawks in Congress.
A handful of senior, mostly Republican lawmakers wary of China’s influence and potential security threats are trying to stop CIMC-Tianda, which has again begun bidding on U.S. airport contracts.
This obscure fight over whether a Chinese manufacturer can be trusted to make sophisticated equipment that operates on airport tarmacs is just the latest example in an escalating war between China and Washington, which has sprawled from industry to industry and provoked a worsening trade war between the two countries.
CIMC-Tianda was found guilty by a U.S. district court in Houston in 1998 of stealing the intellectual property of Jetway Systems, which builds the “jet bridges” — the connectors people walk across to board airplanes — and then using what it learned to undercut Jetway in contract bids. CIMC-Tianda, a subsidiary of state-owned China International Marine Containers, has since become a dominant force in the international airport equipment market, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
The company has largely been absent from U.S. markets after a 1998 court order prohibited it from selling designs other than its own for a decade. But the ban has expired, and with Tianda newly reincorporated inside the United States, it has begun bidding afresh on airport projects in Miami, Orlando, Boston and Dallas. In some cases, according to a fact sheet obtained by POLITICO circulated around Capitol Hill by Jetway, Tianda is using a small U.S.-based company as a “proxy bidder.”
Tianda and its lobbyists did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.
Members of Congress have introduced legislation, urged the Federal Aviation Administration to step in and reached out directly to airport authorities asking them to reject their bids, so far without much traction.
The lawmakers pressing on this issue include some of Congress’ biggest China hawks, such as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). The effort is mostly Republican, but they’ve been joined by at least two Democrats, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters and Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas.
A bill introduced by Cornyn, Rubio and Peters in the Senate and Veasey and Rep. Ron Wright (R-Texas) in the House, would in effect speed a process that Congress already told the FAA to start as part of December’s spending deal.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). | Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
Their bill, aimed directly at CIMC-Tianda, would direct the FAA to make a list of state-owned companies that have been “determined by a Federal court to have misappropriated intellectual property or trade secrets” from U.S. organizations. Then the agency would have to prevent those companies from entering into federally-funded contracts for passenger boarding bridges.
The sponsors of the bill also wrote to the FAA in April referencing CIMC-Tianda’s new bids, and asking the agency to “exercise your authority to preempt contracting with Chinese owned or subsidized companies for our critical airport infrastructure.” Cornyn’s office said the FAA has not responded.
In a statement, the FAA said it has started working with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and Justice Department on identifying entities that have misappropriated intellectual property or trade secrets. The agency noted that recipients of airport funding already have to comply with Buy America requirements, which include the use of steel and manufactured goods produced in the United States.
The timing of the push is largely centered around an upcoming contract in Miami, which Tianda appears poised to win. Local officials are considering two bids to build 12 jet bridges at Miami International Airport: one from the German engineering firm ThyssenKrupp (which has had its own tangles with CIMC-Tianda over boarding bridges) and another from Miami-based North American Construction Co., which lists CIMC-Tianda as a subcontractor. The airport’s request for proposals says the lowest bid will be chosen, and CIMC-Tianda’s is the lower of the two.
A spokesperson for the Miami airport said the bids are still being evaluated, and had no comment on the entities that are bidding.
Florida’s Senate delegation is also involved in pushing against Tianda. Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott and fellow GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who heads the House Appropriations panel in charge of transportation spending, wrote to the Miami airport’s CEO in December asking him to reject the bid despite its “attractive price tag.”
Another Florida airport getting ready to sign a contract for bridges, Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, put a clause in its request for bids that pointedly rules out Tianda.
“Bids will not be considered from bidders who have been found guilty by any court in the United States of crimes pertaining to industrial espionage or intellectual property theft,” the document reads. Victoria Moreland, a spokesperson for the airport, said the language came about after its purchasing department was “made aware of the concerns” around Tianda.
A spokesperson for Boston Logan International Airport confirmed that Tianda had also bid on a proposal for passenger bridges there earlier this year, but had not been chosen. Tianda also lost out in a bid in Orlando last year, despite being the lowest offer.
In the background, Tianda and Jetway Systems are duking it out, with Jetway circulating information on Capitol Hill charging that these sophisticated pieces of equipment used all over the very heart of airports pose security risks if they’re in the wrong hands. Tianda, meanwhile, hired its own lobbying firepower, though it appears to have been short-lived.
What’s next in U.S.-China relations.
In March, Tianda hired a lobbyist who had recently stepped down from the federal Department of Transportation, where he was a senior official, according to a Senate lobbying disclosure form. The lobbyist, Anthony Bedell, was deputy assistant secretary for congressional affairs at DOT from May 2017 to November 2019.
The relationship didn’t last long. The lobbying disclosure lists the start date as Feb. 12, but when POLITICO reached Bedell on June 9, he said he was no longer lobbying for Tianda. Bedell did not respond to a request for more information about when the lobbying registration had been terminated, or why. Bedell’s firm, Becker, was paid around $20,000 for the work.
Perry Jasin, CIMC-Tanda’s director of operations for North America, challenged the assertion that the U.S. outpost of the company is state-owned.
“CIMC-Tianda USA is a Delaware corporation. It was formed in 2017 … to manufacture passenger boarding bridges in the U.S. under the license and IP wholly owned by CIMC-Tianda, a Hong Kong company,” Jasin said in an interview with POLITICO. “It does not receive any funding or support from the Chinese government.”
The Utah-based company Jetway contends that myriad security threats would be created by allowing a Chinese company to build boarding bridges in the United States.
“Newer jet bridges are technologically sophisticated and can integrate fully with internal airport or FAA systems,” it warned in a one-pager passed around Congress, including financial, flight information, alarm and closed-circuit television systems.
“The primary concern is the access to information CIMC-Tianda may be afforded as a result should they win contracts moving forward,” the document says.
Jetway added in a statement to POLITICO that bridge manufacturers “retain the ability to access these systems to facilitate predictive and reactive maintenance and supply data to improve operational efficiencies to airports and airlines, and if those systems are compromised, airport operations could be significantly impacted.”
But Jasin, who worked at competitor ThyssenKrupp for four years, said Tianda largely uses the same technology as its competitors. “Our bridges are designed in the US … and our control systems are made by a local Texas vendor,” Jasin said. “It’s actually the same equipment that [Jetway] and ThyssenKrupp put in theirs.”
Legislative efforts to box out Chinese companies have become commonplace in many sectors, but transportation in particular has seen a number of battles spring up lately. The battle lines are usually similar — security concerns — and have focused on Chinese companies that manufacture everything from drones to railcars and buses.
A large coalition of lawmakers successfully got a provision into last year’s defense authorization that bans transit agencies from purchasing Chinese rolling stock with federal funds, citing similar fears of security vulnerabilities and spying.
A House Republican aide who is working on the passenger bridge issue said the latest effort is intended to “mirror” that success, although they are still searching for a vehicle for their legislation.
While airports are generally wary of requirements that limit their flexibility in procurement, the industry at large doesn’t oppose the passenger bridge legislation as long as the FAA and other government agencies bear the burden of determining which manufacturers to prohibit, said Joel Bacon, executive vice president of government and public affairs at the Association of American Airport Executives.
Security is the main rationale behind the bills circulating on Capitol Hill, but at least one lawmaker also tied it to punishing China for its role in the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement introducing the House companion bill, Wright accused China of being “reckless and negligent” in the pandemic response. “Make no mistake, the [Chinese Communist Party] will stop at nothing to gain power and control. We cannot afford to give them inroads to our most critical systems,” he said.