Trump’s False Claim of Credit for Aviation Safety

No one died in a commercial-jet accident in 2017, but there’s no reason to believe the president had anything to do with that.

Donald Trump exiting a personal jet printed with his name
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Every president likes to take credit when things go well and pass along blame when they go poorly, but no president is as willing to take that pattern to its brazen extreme like Donald Trump.

Last year was a landmark in commercial aviation—the safest year since the advent of widespread passenger-jet travel. Not a single person died in commercial passenger jet crash anywhere in the world in 2017, according to an organization that tracks aviation safety. Tuesday morning, the president announced he deserved credit for that:

The president’s claim can’t withstand even slight scrutiny. The 2017 milestone is worth celebrating, but changes in statistics like air safety are achieved over long time scales, and given the small number of crashes involved, minor deviations in the number are unlikely attributable to any specific presidential action—especially one take in the just under a year Trump has been in office.

But the problems with Trump’s claim don’t end there. First, the statistic involved is crashes worldwide. American aviation has already been extremely safe. No U.S. airline has had a fatality since 2009, when a commuter turboprop crashed near Buffalo, New York, and there hasn’t been a fatal passenger jet accident since 2006, when a plane crashed during takeoff in Lexington, Kentucky. (Foreign carriers have had fatal accidents in the United States, like the 2013 Asiana Airlines crash landing at San Francisco that killed three people.) Trump wishes to take credit for what’s happened overseas—matters both beyond the control of American power, and given the small sample size, also a product of good luck.

Second, it’s hard to find any evidence to back the president’s assertion that he has “been very strict on Commercial Aviation.” In fact, it’s hard to find any evidence that Trump has affected aviation at all. If anything, Trump has promised to loosen regulations on aviation. Meeting with airlines executives in February 2017, Trump complained of a “regulatory morass that’s a disaster” and said he’d loosen “burdensome regulations.” In June, the president proposed privatizing air-traffic control, though that idea was more related to moving jobs off the federal payroll than safety concerns. In September, responding to the president’s call for regulations to cut, an industry panel recommended the FAA scale back or eliminate dozens of safety rules.

But as with many of the president’s priorities, there’s been little actual action on this front. The administration did not report any changes to Federal Aviation Administration regulations in fiscal year 2017, which ended in September, and an FAA list doesn’t show any major new or proposed rules affecting commercial aviation during the Trump administration. The air-traffic control push stalled out amid opposition from Republicans.

The president’s tweet is, once again, circumstantial evidence of his copious television watching—his Tuesday missives closely track stories on Fox News—though he denies he consumes TV. That denial is about as credible as his claiming any credit for a safe 2017 in air travel, which is to say it’s about as credible as an airline’s promise of gourmet dining in coach at 39,000 feet.