Business

Will flyers return to Boeing's 737 MAX?

Plane maker's workhorse could see a backlash

The nose section of a 737 MAX, framed by the wingtips of neighboring 737s, have their engines, landing gear and front nose sensors protected from the weather. Nearly 200 completed Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, built for airlines worldwide, currently are parked at the eastern Washington airport. (Seattle Times/TNS)
The nose section of a 737 MAX, framed by the wingtips of neighboring 737s, have their engines, landing gear and front nose sensors protected from the weather. Nearly 200 completed Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, built for airlines worldwide, currently are parked at the eastern Washington airport. (Seattle Times/TNS)

SEATTLE — Jen Collet considers herself a savvy flyer.

As a former flight attendant, the wife of a corporate pilot and daughter of an airline mechanic, the self-described “snowbird” said she’s long paid attention to the type of aircraft she’s flying on during her frequent trips to Arizona and elsewhere.

But as Collet waited Friday near the Southwest Airlines ticketing terminal at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, she disclosed a secret that might not sit well with her Mukilteo neighbors: She plans to avoid Boeing’s 737 MAX once it’s cleared to fly again.

“I hate to say it because my street is full of Boeing employees,” Collet said. “But I probably won’t fly on the MAX.

“If they’re doing all these extra checks, I would think it should be safe. But before I fly, I’ll probably check the airplane, and I definitely would avoid it.”

The latest version of Boeing’s bestselling workhorse faces a potential consumer backlash as its return to flight looms closer after being grounded globally since March following two crashes that killed 346 people.

The fate of the MAX — along with Boeing’s reputation — largely depends on winning over passengers like Collet.

While the company prepares to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and foreign regulators for its fixes to the plane’s suspect flight-control system, it also has been trying to win the flying public’s approval.

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Boeing has mounted a fervent public relations campaign in recent months, seeking to appease lingering concerns about its beleaguered twin-engine jet that brings in up to 40 percent of its profits.

It hired PR heavyweight Edelman to craft a communications strategy, took out full-page newspaper ads and distributed video testimonials by company employees.

“When the 737 MAX returns to service,” Boeing’s 737 chief pilot, Jennifer Henderson, said in one of the company’s polished promotional spots, “I would absolutely put my family on this airplane.”

But some crisis management, market research and product liability experts think Boeing’s initial response was confusing and defensive, casting a cloud over more recent and substantial steps the company has taken.

Boeing and its troubled airplane still face a long, bumpy ride ahead in winning back trust, they predicted.

“There are so many examples of companies that have found themselves in crisis,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle trial lawyer for more than 30 years who has represented victims of prominent food safety catastrophes worldwide.

“But it seems like the ones that get real and open about what happened, embracing how terrible it was — and do it sooner rather than later — they’re the ones that fix things.”

After the first crash, Boeing’s public response largely amounted to defending the design of the MAX’s flight control system, known as MCAS, that repeatedly had pushed the jet’s nose down.

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The company dug in further following the second crash, insisting the design was safe, but offering a software update and training procedures to help pilots.

Such initial “poor messaging” only served to breed more public distrust and fear, said Irv Schenkler, a clinical professor of management communications at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Boeing’s “the less said, the better” approach created a vacuum that was ultimately filled by critical news reports that exposed deeper safety concerns and contradicted the company’s statements, Schenkler said.

“Now, (Boeing is) hoping to ‘hold the line’ with industrial customers and governments while also trying to put their best face forward via executive apologies using video and apologies in print, as well as personally, by the CEO in testimony before Congress,” Schenkler said. “To some extent, it’s a matter of putting lipstick on a pig — it’s still a pig.”

Public perception about the MAX and Boeing’s trustworthiness seemed to calcify within weeks after the MAX’s grounding. A market research survey of 2,000 passengers in May found 72% of leisure travelers correctly identified the MAX as the grounded jet.

“That was a big surprise to us,” Henry Harteveldt, president of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research that conducted the survey, said last week. “Not every airline passenger is a frequent flyer who knows the type of plane he or she is flying on.”

The survey also projected big consumer troubles for Boeing and what the firm called its “airplane non grata”: Just 14% of passengers said they would definitely fly on a MAX within six months of its return to service, and only one in five during its first year.

“Ensuring the 737 MAX is seen as a safe aircraft will help Boeing improve its corporate reputation,” the firm’s survey analysis said, “but won’t be enough to fully rehabilitate its image.”

Restoring trust

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All roads to winning back consumer confidence must go through transparency, several experts agreed. Time also will help, they said.

“Memories recede and new problems arise,” said Irv Schenkler, a clinical professor of management communications at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “In a year from now, this may seem a distant concern — unless another MAX 737 disaster scorches the headlines.”

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