WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Donald Trump spoke with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday to get assurances about the safety of the 737 MAX plane that crashed in Ethiopia, he wasn’t talking to a stranger.
The U.S. president, who owned his own airline, Trump Shuttle, from 1989 to 1992, is an aviation enthusiast. Before becoming president he had his own private jet and since his inauguration, he has taken visible delight in the presidential aircraft, Air Force One.
His aviation connections have expanded during his presidency to include relationships with powerful executives in the defense industry, including Muilenburg, with whom he has talked several times.
Muilenburg told Trump in Tuesday’s morning call that the aircraft was safe and did not need to be grounded, two people briefed on the conversation said.
Later in the day, aviation officials repeated that U.S. flights of the plane would continue.
That leaves the United States as an outlier in its response to Sunday’s crash of a Boeing 737 MAX that killed 157 people. The European Union’s aviation safety regulator on Tuesday suspended all flights by the plane in the bloc; of the top 10 countries by air passenger travel, all but the United States and Japan have halted flights.
U.S. officials, including a bipartisan group of five Senators, are asking why the FAA is not doing the same. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, said he intends to convene a hearing to investigate.
The Ethiopian crash follows one of a 737 MAX five months ago in Indonesia that killed 189 people. There is no evidence yet that the two disasters are linked. Plane experts say it is too early to speculate on the cause of the crash.
Trump personally negotiated with Muilenburg to try to lower the cost of a future version of Air Force One after complaining the price tag was too high.
“He cares about business and he creates open communication lines, and we will have differences from time to time, we may not agree on every topic,” Muilenburg said in a radio interview last month.
But while the relationship hasn’t all been cozy, ties between Boeing and the Trump administration run deep.
Trump has used Boeing products and sites as a backdrop for major announcements over the course of his presidency. In March 2018 he touted the impact of his tax overhaul bill as he visited a plant in St. Louis.
Before joining the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is expected to be named to the post, worked for 31 years at Boeing, where he was general manager for the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.
Boeing has nominated Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who continues to be a close ally, to join its board of directors at the company’s annual shareholders meeting on April 29.
Trump has also put pressure on U.S. allies to buy products from Boeing, the country’s second largest defense contractor which received $104 billion in unclassified defense contracts between 2014 and 2018.
U.S. officials and defense industry sources said that weeks after Trump pressed the Emir of Kuwait in 2018 over a long-delayed deal for Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, Kuwait said it would proceed with the order.
Boeing is also one of the largest U.S. exporters to China, and Muilenburg told an aviation summit in Washington that purchases of its U.S.-made aircraft by China could be part of a sweeping trade deal currently being negotiated.
Aircraft exports have thus far been spared from retaliatory Chinese tariffs.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Shepardson; additional reporting by Tim Hepher, Lisa Lambert, and Mike Stone; Editing by Chris Sanders and Sonya Hepinstall