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'Too complex to fly'? Trump riff on planes shows aversion to technological change and science

Eli Stokols, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- He has demanded "goddamned steam" to power the Navy's aircraft carriers and prefers a wall to drones and other technology to secure the country's southern border.

He has rejected the scientific consensus on climate change and repeatedly, wrongly, pointed to occasional wintry weather as proof that he's right.

And this week, amid a safety scare involving Boeing's 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 airplanes, President Donald Trump complained that modern jets are "too complex to fly." He added: "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."

The president, a septuagenarian who tweets yet doesn't email, text or use computers, and openly marvels at the invention of the wheel, is not shy about his old-school attitude toward technology. That backward-looking approach is at the core of his nostalgia-based appeal to voters longing for a supposedly better, simpler era of American greatness.

Yet this worldview represents a break from the generally futuristic stance of Trump's predecessors in his lifetime. His most recent comments in a pair of tweets Tuesday morning -- alluding to the Boeing models involved in two calamitous crashes in six months -- cast into vivid relief the puzzling, even perilous mind-set of a 21st-century chief executive so stubbornly change-averse and all but indifferent to technological advancement in an era of intense global competition.

"It is profoundly concerning, and it's not just about scientific evidence but evidence more broadly," said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration. "He just says and tweets whatever he thinks from his gut, not from data or evidence or facts. And that's extremely dangerous -- dangerous in terms of national security, foreign relations, all kinds of areas."

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"There are 87,000 flights a day" in the United States, Holdren added. "We prove 87,000 times every day that planes are not too complex to fly."

Whatever the cause of the latest crash Sunday in Ethiopia that killed everyone on board, following the catastrophic accident in Indonesia in October, Trump waited until Wednesday afternoon to order the MAX models to be grounded indefinitely pending investigation. Fifty-one nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, already had ordered the planes out of service, and members of Congress in both parties urged the administration to do so as well.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who donated to Trump's inaugural committee and traveled with him to Hanoi last month to celebrate orders for MAX planes from three Vietnamese airlines, spoke with the president Tuesday after his tweets about the alleged danger of planes' complexity. The company has been planning to update the flight control system in 737-MAX jets to fix issues with a stall prevention system.

When Boeing's 787 Dreamliner model had a battery fire problem in 2013, during the Obama administration, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the aircraft for six weeks until a fix was in place. Yet fire incidents continued into 2014, prompting Trump to tweet in March of that year, "Lithium ion batteries should not be allowed to be used in aircraft. I won't fly on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner -- it uses those batteries."

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