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The ups and (mostly) downs of Trump Shuttle, the president’s long-defunct airline

Donald Trump, with the help of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), cuts the ribbon during ceremonies marking Trump Shuttle’s inaugural flight at Washington National Airport on June 8, 1989. (Barry Thumma/Associated Press)

The crash landing of the Boeing 727 was perhaps the best metaphor about Donald Trump’s airline: a passenger jet with malfunctioning nose gear dumping fuel to avoid a greater catastrophe, the thin veneer of a graceful landing torn away with the white underbelly paint grinding on the asphalt, and  public relations spin turning a near-disaster into an apparent strength.

“It was the most beautiful landing you’ve ever seen,” Trump said about the incident at Boston’s Logan International Airport in August 1989, just two months after he launched his Trump Shuttle airline to fly white-collar passengers between New York, Washington and Boston. “By the time it landed at the end, the front just touched very softly. Everybody got off. Nobody was injured. They were shaken up. But they were fine,” he said.

The passengers were in good health, but the same could not be same for Trump Shuttle, the mogul’s $365 million regional airline gambit. Trump bought the fleet of 21 planes, terminals and equipment from bankrupt Eastern Airlines with an eye toward gaudy upgrades. But a mix of costly business missteps, a market decline and rising fuel prices led to the airline’s collapse three years later.

President Trump’s aviation acumen became news again Tuesday when he appeared to take credit for no one dying in an accident on a commercial passenger jet in 2017. 

“Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation,” Trump tweeted, with a factual error repeated in the next sentence. Trump claimed there were no deaths, but that is only true when you exclude everything except large passenger jet aircraft, like the ones that once powered his fleet. The Aviation Safety Network recorded 10 worldwide crashes involving small propeller planes and cargo aircraft, killing 44 passengers and 35 people on the ground in 2017, including two crashes in the United States. One person died in a Cessna commuter flight crash in Alaska on May 1, and two were killed in a cargo plane crash in West Virginia four days later.

Air travel was miserable in 2017, but at least nobody died in a commercial jet crash

That aside, it is unclear which policies, if any, Trump enacted that led to any improvements from years past. The last U.S. origin crash with fatalities involving a commercial jet airliner was in 2009. A former pilot and airline safety consultant told The Washington Post that a decline in both accidents and fatalities is the work of the aviation industry over decades, not years or even the first quarter of Trump’s term.

The good news is that no one died in a commercial jet crash in 2017. The bad news is air travel was still pretty awful in 2017. Here’s why. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Yet Trump may have more familiarity with the airline industry than most politicians, although his tenure as an airline owner lasted only three years, or about 17 years short of what Airbus considers the span of the landing gear similar to what failed on Trump’s 727.

Trump had the idea for a “diamond in the sky,” an airline mirroring his casino and hotel’s motif of splashed marble, gold and plush, according to the book “Trump Revealed” by Post staffers Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher. But the airline quickly found luxury was impractical on the airplane, its crew and the customers themselves.

Marble sinks were too heavy on the airframe, where every inch is scrutinized to save space and weight, so faux-marble was installed. Thick burgundy carpets made it difficult for flight attendants to move their beverage and food carts. Trump advised the attendants to push harder, Kranish and Fisher wrote. And despite customer surveys touting on-time flights and consistent schedules as their main needs, Trump insisted on gold-plated fixtures, leather seats and chrome buckles for flights that typically took less than an hour.

“My argument at the time, which fell on deaf ears, was no one was going to fly on our planes because they looked better. He disagreed because his modus operandi was to make things look flashier than anyone else,” recounted the shuttle’s former president, Bruce R. Nobles, to the Boston Globe.

Analysis: Trump’s claim that he prevented air-traffic deaths is his most questionable yet

Those upgrades amounted to about $1 million for every plane, with each aging airframe worth only about $4 million. Trump offered at times bewildering suggestions to save money elsewhere, such as reducing the cockpit crew from three to two. Nobles reminded Trump that Federal Aviation Administration regulations required a pilot, a co-pilot and an engineer, Kranish and Fisher wrote.

Trump’s team estimated that they overpaid $65 million for the operation  but could make it back if the airline could overtake Pan Am and win 60 percent of the market share. Trump shot first, indicating at the inaugural flight that Pan Am was losing money and could not afford to safely maintain its fleet.

“We said, ‘Donald, don’t ever do that again,’ ” recalled Henry Harteveldt, the company’s marketing director, the Globe reported. “It was wrong. We had no proof to back that up. And there’s an unwritten rule in the airline business that you don’t attack someone else’s safety record.”

It was only two months until Pan Am reveled in irony — Trump’s plane skidded across the runaway at Logan after a mechanical failure. About the same time, Pan Am launched an ad campaign spoofing the indulgence of Trump Shuttle that featured Monopoly’s Milburn Pennybags. “On which shuttle will you find the world’s most famous investor in real estate, hotels, and transportation?” the ads asked, according to the Globe.

Trump later blamed a market downturn for declining ridership, along with rising jet fuel prices because of the Gulf War in 1991. As his airline sagged, Trump contracted at least one of his aircraft to shuttle Marines to their base in Florida after flight delays marred their return home from the gulf.

By the end of the year, Trump made a deal. USAir took over the operation, and Trump was no longer responsible for some of the $245 million in loans left, and $100 million of the $135 million Trump personally guaranteed was forgiven, the Globe reported, citing media reports at the time.

“I got out at a good time,” Trump said in a Globe interview. “I walked away saying, ‘I’m smart.’ The market had crashed. I didn’t lose anything. It was a good thing.”

But Trump can take credit for one achievement. Trump Shuttle, which folded in 1992, hasn’t had a safety mishap for nearly three decades.

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