Surprise: Trump Kept 737 Max Jets Flying After Call from Boeing C.E.O.

By Bess Levin

Paul Hennessy/Getty Images.

Update: Hours after the New York Times story reporting the call was published, Trump announced that the F.A.A. would order the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 jets “until further notice.”

Since Sunday’s deadly plane crash that killed 157 people, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, the U.K., New Zealand, Canada and Europe have all temporarily closed their airspaces to the Boeing 737 Max, the model that has now been involved in two deadly disasters in the last five months. There is incredible pressure on the F.A.A. to take similar action in the U.S., with two unions representing flight attendants imploring the regulator to suspend the flights, saying customers’ confidence can only be restored “by grounding the 737 Max until the required changes have been implemented and the public can be fully assured.” On Tuesday, after offering an incomprehensible take on modern aviation, it seemed as though the president was poised to demand the F.A.A. stop all 737 Max flights, whether through private channels or simply by angrily tweeting at them. Luckily, though, this particular commander in chief is rendered powerless by those who kiss the ring:

With more countries grounding Boeing jets and with lawmakers, aviation workers, and consumers calling on the United States to do the same, the head of the aerospace giant on Tuesday made a personal appeal to President Trump.

Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg, called from Chicago and expressed to Mr. Trump his confidence in the safety of the 737 Max 8 jets, according to two people briefed on the conversation. Two of the planes flown by overseas carriers have crashed in recent months in similar accidents.

Boeing’s relationship with Mr. Trump has not always been smooth, however. Shortly after becoming president-elect, Mr. Trump assailed Boeing for the estimated cost of its program to build new Air Force One planes, which provide mobile command centers for the president . . . A couple of weeks later, Mr. Muilenburg visited Mr. Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., to try to smooth things over . . . Weeks after the conversation, Boeing donated $1 million to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee.

In a statement, transportation secretary Elaine Chao—who, along with her entire staff, took an 737 Max from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon to make a point—said her department and F.A.A. regulators “will not hesitate to take immediate and appropriate action,” if necessary. Boeing, meanwhile, maintains its jets are safe, and said in its own statement that, “based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.”

That Trump is easy to flatter is, of course, not the only thing Boeing has going for it as it fights to keep the 737 Max in U.S. airspace. For starters, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is a former Boeing executive. Also, per The New York Times, the company also spent $15 million on lobbying last year. Oh, and it basically acts as its own regulator, effectively signing off on the safety of its planes:

For decades, the F.A.A. has used a network of outside experts, known as F.A.A. designees, to certify that aircraft meet safety standards. In 2005, the regulator shifted its approach for how it delegated authority outside the agency, creating a new program through which aircraft manufacturers like Boeing could choose their own employees to be the designees and help certify their planes. The program is intended to help the F.A.A. stretch its limited resources, while also benefiting plane makers who are eager to avoid delays in the certification process.

The regulator maintains offices inside Boeing’s factories, including those in Renton, Wash., and in Charleston, S.C. . . . The F.A.A.’s top safety official, Ali Bahrami, has worked closely with Boeing during his career, directing the agency’s certification of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the 747-8 passenger and freighter models.

“It’s a very cozy relationship,” Jim Hall, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Times. “The manufacturer essentially becomes both the manufacturer and the regulator, because of the lack of the ability of government to do the job.” Comforting!

More Great Stories from Vanity Fair

— How three brothers hijacked South Africa

— The deepening mystery of Trump’s SAT scores

— The best crime show you’re not watching

— Is this Trump move an actual, real-life impeachable offense?

Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.