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From the Trump Shuttle to Air Force One: A Self-Declared Aviation Expert

Category: Political News,Politics

WASHINGTON — President Trump got a firsthand taste of aircraft safety risks in August 1989 when a Boeing 727 operated by the Trump Shuttle, which he had bought a few months earlier and rebranded with his name, failed to lower its nose gear as it prepared to land in Boston.

“He was quite terrified that we were going to have an airplane burning on the runway with his name splashed across it,” said Bruce R. Nobles, who was the airline’s president.

The Trump Shuttle jet landed safely, if in a shower of sparks, and a euphoric Mr. Trump hailed the pilots as heroes. But Mr. Nobles said his boss was nervous about flying to Boston on a shuttle flight the next day to demonstrate the airline’s safety.

That same mix of swagger and uneasiness was on display in the White House on Wednesday, when Mr. Trump pre-empted the Federal Aviation Administration in announcing that the United States would ground Boeing’s fleet of 737 Max planes after two deadly crashes.

Boeing, he said, was an “incredible company” and would find and fix the problem. But in the meantime, he said, “I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of ways” to ground the planes.

It was the latest illustration of Mr. Trump’s longstanding, peculiar affinity for aviation — an industry he knows as an owner and frequent flier, but often claims to understand as an aeronautical engineer.

Whether it is the merits of Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet, the cost of a new Air Force One or Mr. Trump’s frequent assertion that the F-35 stealth fighter is “literally invisible,” the president barges into the technical details of aviation with more enthusiasm than expertise.

A day before grounding the 737s, Mr. Trump declared that modern planes were too complex for anyone but “computer scientists from MIT” to fly. Aviation experts pointed out that the problem with the 737 Max might be exactly the opposite: Boeing designed the modified 737 so that it would require minimal additional training of the pilots.

People who have worked with Mr. Trump said his knowledge of aviation reflected someone who had owned private planes — first a 727 and later a 757 — but little more than that. His older brother, Fred Trump Jr., was a pilot for Trans World Airlines and married a flight attendant. But Mr. Trump channeled his passion into real estate development.

“He knows more about airlines and aviation than the average person, but he doesn’t know as much as I do,” said Mr. Nobles, who ran Hawaiian Airlines and Air Jamaica after his time at the Trump Shuttle. “Then again, I don’t know as much as him about real estate.”

Mr. Trump’s short-lived tenure as an airline executive captures his strange relationship with the industry. He was drawn to the shuttle less because he loved flying than because he saw it as a “diamond” — a prestigious, pre-Acela system of transportation for the nation’s East Coast elite.

After buying the shuttle from financially strapped Eastern Air Lines for $365 million in 1989, Mr. Trump proceeded to polish it by fitting out its fleet of 21 planes with maple wood veneer and gold-colored lavatory fixtures. He offered passengers free food, coffee, magazines and newspapers.

“I’ll spend more money and I’ll give the people more than they anticipate even,” he told The New York Times in 1989, vowing, with characteristic immodesty, to create “the best transportation system of any kind in the entire world.”

Mr. Trump brought bare-knuckle tactics to the Avis-Hertz competition with his rival, Pan Am Shuttle. At one point, he warned that Pan Am might not have the financial resources to maintain safe planes — a statement that violated the industry’s informal code and drew protests from Mr. Nobles, who had run the Pan Am Shuttle before jumping over to Mr. Trump.

“I said to Donald: ‘Look, most people are uncomfortable flying. You’re up in the air at 35,000 feet, and the only thing between you and death is a piece of aluminum,’” Mr. Nobles recalled. “‘Anything you do to make flying seem more risky and less safe is bad for all of us.’”

For a while, Mr. Trump’s innovations fueled a lively competition between the two carriers. But the economy in the Northeast ran out of steam in the fall of 1989, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait caused oil prices to spike the next summer. Mr. Trump looked for ways to economize.

He pressed Mr. Nobles to cut the flight crews in the 727s from three to two. His personal 727 had only two pilots, he pointed out. Mr. Nobles said he explained to Mr. Trump that the 727s used by the Trump Shuttle were configured for a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer. The planes would require a costly redesign to be certified for only two pilots. Mr. Trump replied that he suspected Mr. Nobles was trying to protect the pilots’ jobs.

In December 1991, USAir struck a deal with Mr. Trump’s banks to take over the Trump Shuttle. Under the terms of the agreement, Mr. Trump was relieved of the bulk of the $135 million in loans he had guaranteed personally to buy the airline from Eastern. Mr. Trump has told friends he got out of the airline industry at the right time, though the economics of the industry were in a free fall by the time Mr. Trump unloaded the shuttle.

“He’s not going to be remembered in the annals of the airline industry,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group. “He is known as the temporary caretaker of something that was heading into oblivion. That doesn’t make you an aviation industry executive.”

Mr. Aboulafia said the president’s pattern with aviation, as in other areas, had been to declare a crisis and then take credit for fixing it.

“The F-35 was a disaster until he could take credit for cost savings,” he said. “Air Force One was a disaster until he got major cost savings from Boeing. The Super Hornet was a terrible plane until he could take credit for putting it back into the defense budget.”

After selling the Trump Shuttle, Mr. Trump’s involvement in aviation was mainly through his 757-200, which is equipped with a big-screen entertainment system and 24-karat-gold fixtures. The plane, once owned by Microsoft’s co-founder, Paul Allen, became known as “Trump Force One” after Mr. Trump used it to hopscotch between rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Mr. Trump was so fond of the 757 that he briefly considered using it instead of Air Force One after he took office. That coincided with Mr. Trump’s bitter complaints about the cost of a plan to replace the two Boeing 747s that currently operate as Air Force One. He also floated the prospect of naming his personal pilot, John Dunkin, to be the head of the F.A.A.

Those ideas have vanished like a jet’s contrails, but Mr. Trump remains opinionated about airplanes and the industry.

In January 2018 he tweeted: “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!” In fact, there had not been a fatality on a commercial airliner in the United States since 2013.

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