Seven months after the second deadly crash of a 737 Max jet, Boeing Co. still is working on software fixes and pilot training to address global aviation regulators’ concerns and get the grounded aircraft back in the sky.
But the Seattle manufacturer and the airlines that bought the plane have another task ahead of them that might be even more difficult: Convincing anxious air travelers that the 737 Max is safe.
Already United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have promised to let passengers who are scheduled to fly in a 737 Max rebook to another plane — without paying a fee — if they feel unsafe in the 737 Max.
Still, the final strategies for easing the nerves of 737 Max passengers remain a work in progress — one the airlines don’t want to discuss.
“We’ll have videos, visuals, FAQs and much more,” said Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, which has 34 planes grounded. “But again, our plans aren’t final and we’re just not quite ready to provide specifics.”
Boeing recognizes that airline passengers will be nervous boarding a 737 Max again, the company’s chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, told a gathering of the trade group Global Business Travel Assn. in August.
“This is certainly a challenging situation and the respect and confidence of the flying public is extremely important to us,” he said. “And we know that trust has been damaged over the last few months and we own that and we are working hard to re-earn that trust going forward.”
When hundreds of 737 Max planes were grounded in March, the process of getting the popular aircraft flying again was predicted to take a matter of weeks. Since then, Boeing has conducted more than 700 test flights of the 737 Max with new software updates and has invited more than 200 pilots to informational sessions with the company, according to Boeing representatives.
Boeing is sticking to its timeline of a return to service for the 737 Max by the end of the year, but some analysts doubt the plane will fly again until 2020. United and Southwest airlines have pulled the 737 Max from their flight schedules until at least December.
American Airlines said Wednesday that it plans to return the plane to service on Jan. 16, more than a month beyond its previous forecast. The Fort Worth-based airline promised to release in the coming weeks its policies and procedures for people who don’t want to fly in the 737 Max.
Boeing and the airlines will have their work cut out for them when it comes time to get airline passengers feeling good about booking flights on the plane.
At least 20% of U.S. travellers say they will definitely avoid the plane in the first six months after flights resume, according to a study led by consultant Henry Harteveldt. More than 40% said they’d be willing to take pricier or less convenient flights to stay off the 737 Max. A separate UBS Group survey found that 70% would hesitate to book a flight on Boeing’s bestselling jet.
The 737 Max was grounded after the crashes of Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March. A combined 346 people died in the crashes. There were no survivors from either flight.
Michael Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, said if he were advising Boeing and the operators of the 737 Max he would recommend that they first try to win the confidence of the pilots who will be asked to fly the planes.
Americans are increasingly distrustful of regulators and government agencies, he said, but passengers would feel safe in the cabin if the pilots in the cockpits expressed confidence in the fixes that were implemented.
“Primarily, you need to get the pilots to say, ‘I’m comfortable with this,’” he said.
Pilots began expressing misgivings about the 737 Max after the first fatal crash, and the Southwest Airlines pilots union on Monday sued Boeing for at least $115 million in lost compensation caused by the grounding and accused the company of putting profits ahead of safety. Boeing said the suit was without merit.
American Airlines already appears to be emphasizing the role of its pilots in reassuring passengers of the safety of the plane. Some of the air carriers’ pilots had voiced their concern about the plane’s automated anti-stall system in a meeting with Boeing after the first crash.
“Once the aircraft is cleared to fly again, American will continue to look at ways to reiterate to our customers that our pilots are the best in the business and would never fly an unsafe aircraft,” American Airlines spokesman Curtis Blessing said. “All of our customers can be assured that an American Airlines pilot would never operate an unsafe aircraft.”
Steve Dahms, a business development expert from San Diego who flies extensively on American Airlines, said he’d be hesitant to board a 737 Max until regulators publicly announce fines and even criminal proceedings filed against Boeing executives who were responsible for the plane’s safety problems.
“Without that information,” he said, “I will feel less than safe.”