President Trump began Monday morning on Twitter by offering a lesson in Branding 101.
The test case: “If I were Boeing.”
Just weeks ago, as Boeing came under intense scrutiny for the safety of its 737 Max 8 planes, Trump asserted: “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT.”
But he took a different tack Monday when he said that if he were in charge of the American aviation giant — as opposed to, say, the executive branch — he would “FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name.”
“No product has suffered like this one,” Trump tweeted. “But again, what the hell do I know?”
The tweet stands in contrast with his earlier stance that the problem with air travel was that flying had just become “far too complex.”
“I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better.”
However, an aviation consultant who spent two years as marketing director for Trump’s ill-fated aviation venture, Trump Shuttle, described Trump as a “marketer’s marketer” who had little business expertise in airplanes or airlines.
Trump spent lavishly on gilded interiors for his company’s planes but wanted to cut corners on important safety issues, including an FAA requirement to have three pilots in the planes, Henry Harteveldt said.
“The 727 required three pilots but he at one point questioned why we needed the third pilot — the flight engineer — and we had to explain to him why you can’t just do that,” Harteveldt said.
Trump Shuttle ceased to exist after 1992 when it merged with another company.
Boeing has come under intense scrutiny — from regulatory agencies and customers alike — since two 737 Max planes crashed within a five-month window, killing 346 people. But the special relationship between the 102-year-old company and the federal government made it all the more noteworthy for Trump to claim that “no product has suffered like this one.”
As The Washington Post reported last month, Boeing and the U.S. government have historically relied upon one another, “together creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, outfitting the United States with top military aircraft and supplying planes worldwide to allow the growth of passenger air travel and to boost U.S. exports.” Yet those close ties are being seen through a more critical lens as Boeing and U.S. regulators appeared slow to react to the March 10 crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 jet in Ethiopia.
Trump hardly stood apart from earlier presidents in his broad support for Boeing. Speaking at a Boeing plant in South Carolina in 2017, Trump closed out his speech saying, “God bless you, may God bless the United States of America, and God bless Boeing.”
Last week, the White House Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced it would pursue tariffs against a slate of aircraft and airplane parts coming from the European Union, as well as other products such as brandy and brooms from E.U. countries. The office warned that the tariffs would have consequences for an extended trade dispute involving Airbus, the European aircraft behemoth, and said the damage caused by E.U. subsidies totaled $11 billion every year.
“The World Trade Organization finds that the European Union subsidies to Airbus has adversely impacted the United States, which will now put Tariffs on $11 billion of EU products!” Trump said on Twitter. “The EU has taken advantage of the U.S. on trade for many years. It will soon stop!”
The president’s Monday morning tweet came four weeks into a worldwide grounding of Boeing 737 Max jets — a precaution that will likely drag on for some time. American Airlines said Sunday it was canceling flights on the aircraft through Aug. 19 while it waits for Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration to fix and recertify the 737 Max’s flight-control systems.
“We remain confident that the impending software updates, along with the new training elements Boeing is developing for the MAX, will lead to recertification of the aircraft soon,” American Airlines President Robert Isom and CEO Doug Parker wrote in a letter to pilots and employees.
United Airlines on Monday said it was cancelling Boeing 737 Max flights through early July, CNBC reported.
Harteveldt said like many travelers, Trump failed to understand the complexities of running an airline or aircraft safety.
“He certainly does understand branding and marketing,” he said. “In this case, though, when it comes to airplanes, he doesn’t understand the details and complexity that come with aircraft design and certification. He’s not a pilot, he’s not an aviation professional, he’s a traveler. And travelers don’t always understand the details of how the airlines work.”
Trump Shuttle got its start in 1989 when Trump bought Eastern Air Lines out of bankruptcy, acquiring a small fleet of Boeing 727 jets.
Trump then spent about $1 million on each of the 21 planes, installing luxury furnishings including chrome-plated seat belts embossed with the Trump logo. He had little knowledge of the planes themselves, however, and was not sensitive to the technical and regulatory side of running an airline, Harteveldt said.
As far as Trump’s suggestion that the 737 Max be fixed and rebranded: “You cannot just rebrand an airplane,” Harteveldt said. “Airplanes are not detergent or gum or aspirin. … They are certified by the FAA as a specific model according to the training that pilots and flight attends need.”
Harteveldt said Boeing would likely view Trump’s early-morning tweet as “more of a nuisance than anything else,” noting that Boeing has been in the crosshairs of the presidential Twitter account before.
On Dec. 6, 2016, a month after his election but before his inauguration, Trump said on Twitter that Boeing’s contract to build Air Force One should be canceled entirely because of its high costs. Early last year, the White House announced that it had reached a deal with Boeing for two airplanes at a cost of $3.9 billion.
Harteveldt described the 737 Max as a “brand extension” to an older model of 737s. An entirely different plane would have had trouble breaking into a market where generations of 737 jets are already accepted.
“Large 737 customers didn’t want a new airplane,” he said. “It would have been more complex and expensive in terms of onboarding the new plane. Not just certifying with the FAA, but the amount of knowledge and training that went into it.”