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Trump Says Planes 'Too Complex' For Pilots, But Experts Say Technology Has Made Planes Safer

A Southwest Airlines flight Boeing 737 flies over Bachman Lake near Dallas (brentdanley/Flickr)
A Southwest Airlines flight Boeing 737 flies over Bachman Lake near Dallas (brentdanley/Flickr)

President Trump has suggested there's too much "unnecessary" technology in modern-day airplanes. In a series of tweets Tuesday, Trump said planes have become too complicated for pilots to handle and the technology "creates danger."

Trump's comments came after a plane crash in Ethiopia killed all 157 people on board. The same type of plane — a Boeing 737 Max 8 — was involved in another crash in Indonesia just months ago, and is now under global scrutiny. The recent crashes have raised questions about airplane technology and pilot training on new systems.

“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT," Trump tweeted. "I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”

But experts — including one at MIT — say technology has made planes safer.

"Airplanes have actually gotten much easier to fly and much safer," MIT aeronautics professor R. John Hansman told WBUR. "The automation systems that we have on airplanes have demonstrably made airplanes safer."

Hansman, the director of MIT's International Center for Air Transportation, said most new airplanes are flown through a computer, and "humans right now are on board in part to make sure that you can deal with ambiguity."

That "ambiguity" could be bad weather, a sick passenger or a problem on the runway, where a human is needed to step in and make adjustments during a flight, according to Hansman.

This isn't the first time Trump has questioned technology. In 2017, he suggested the Navy turn back to "goddamn steam" to power its catapult system on a new high-tech aircraft carrier instead of an electromagnetic system. Trump once again evoked Albert Einstein to criticize the technology.

"It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out," Trump told Time magazine then. 

Boeing would not comment on Trump's tweets about airplanes, but the company's website calls some of the technological features of its 737 Max planes "a pilot's best friend."

And the aerospace behemoth plans to push its technology forward by tapping into the local innovation ecosystem. Boeing is developing an autonomous aircraft center in Kendall Square that will focus on autonomous transportation, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The center is expected to be complete in 2020 and will anchor MIT's massive Kendall square development.

It could take months to determine the cause of Sunday's Boeing crash. For now, the company's 737 Max airplanes — its fastest-selling planes ever — have been grounded in the U.S. after an order by Trump Wednesday. The grounding follows similar decisions by several other countries.

Related:

Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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