A Boeing 737 MAX aircraft owned by Ryanair parked at Boeing’s Renton, Washington factory in October. All 737 Max planes remain officially “grounded” worldwide.
In air travel, reputation is everything. The Boeing Company continues to find this out the hard way as it struggles through one of the worst crises in its 103-year history — the crashes of two its new 737 Max airplanes within five months that killed 346 people.
For decades, Boeing’s reputation among airline pilots was second to none.
“I’ve been (flying) on Boeing aircraft for over 33 years,” says Captain Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot for American Airlines. Boeing planes saved his life when he flew in the military, he says. Pilots had a saying that showed their faith in the company’s aircraft– “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.”
But that high level of confidence is in the past. Ask Tajer about his trust in Boeing now, and he says, “Oh, it’s been shaken. Absolutely. Boeing is still an incredible company but they horridly fouled up this aircraft.”
Tajer, who is a spokesman for American’s pilots union, says it’s not just that Boeing installed a flawed flight control system that forced both planes into uncontrollable nose dives, but pilots are outraged because the company never told pilots the system even existed. That outrage only grew when Boeing initially defended the design and suggested pilot errors were more to blame for the crashes. This was compounded by revelations that Boeing officials knew about the systems flaws before the crashes and appeared to have downplayed safety concerns.
“These are just toxic liquids poured over the trust relationship,” says Tajer. “It doesn’t mean we can’t get there (and have faith in Boeing again). It just means that it’s more than ‘trust but verify,’ we’re down to ‘show me.'”
Flyers faith rattled
With pilots’ faith in Boeing shaken, who can blame frequent flyers like Wendy Rheault who before boarding a recent flight from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to Sacramento said she doubts she’ll fly on a 737 Max even if aviation regulators recertify the planes as safe.
“I think I would be uncomfortable flying it,” says the health care executive. “I would have to kind of wait for a while (after it’s flying again).” She says she thinks she’d have trouble trusting that the plane is safe.
Jay Hanmantgad of London, who was passing through O’Hare on his way to Ottawa says he would fly on a Max but only after European, Canadian and other international regulators recertify it to fly.
And he says his once high opinion of Boeing has changed.
“Yes, it certainly has,” says Hanmantgad. It appears to him that the company hurried the plane through the development and certification process in an effort to keep costs down and reap higher profits, “which is clearly a criminal offense, I would say. So they need to be held accountable for that.”
A recent survey of about two thousand air travelers shows that more than 80-percent say they would avoid flying on a 737 Max in its first six months back, and more than half say they’d pay a higher fare just to avoid flying on a Max.
Even if the FAA and other aviation regulators recertify the 737 Max as safe to fly again, airlines and their flight crews can refuse to fly the plane if they’re not convinced.
A storied safety reputation in jeopardy
“I think it’s a really critical moment for Boeing as a corporation,” says Tim Calkins, an expert in branding and crisis management and a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He says Boeing needs pilots, flight attendants and their airlines to vouch for the plane’s safety because Boeing’s own credibility is lacking.
“The hard part right now is that there’s very little Boeing can say that people will really believe,” says Calkins. “If Boeing says the plane is safe, I’m not sure I believe that because they were saying that before.”
To that end, Boeing officials have been regularly meeting with aviation regulators, airlines, pilots and other key groups as they continue to develop and test software fixes for the Max planes. The company is reaching out in other ways, too, taking out full page newspaper ads to express condolences to the families of those who died in the two crashes, and with promotional videos featuring a diverse array of Boeing employees offering testimonials to the company’s safety culture.
“When I take a 737 Max for a test flight, it’s deeply important that I do my job right,” says Boeing’s chief 737 test pilot Jennifer Henderson in one of the videos. “When the 737 Max returns to service I will absolutely put my family on this airplane.”
But many people in aviation circles aren’t convinced, with some commenting in social media forums where the videos are posted that the employees probably had little choice but to sing their employer’s praises.
“Well, I think she could not say it would be unsafe,” quipped one poster on a Facebook page for Boeing enthusiasts.
A public relations disaster
Despite hiring the heavyweight PR firm Edelman to bolster crisis communications efforts, the campaign to win back the trust of air travelers thus far appears to have fallen flat. CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s recent testimony before two Congressional committees has been widely criticized as he struggled to answer questions that many industry insiders felt he should have been prepared for.
“I think Boeing needs a come to Jesus moment and I haven’t seen it happen yet,” says Christine Negroni, an aviation writer and author of book about plane crash investigations called “The Crash Detectives.”
She says Muilenburg and other Boeing officials haven’t been fully forthcoming in explaining their missteps in the development of the 737 Max and what the company knew about the potential problems with the plane before the crashes. Negroni says they still won’t acknowledge deeper and systemic problems inside the company.
“Boeing’s in a pickle and Boeing needs to recognize it’s in a pickle and that might be the hardest part,” Negroni says. “I said it’s a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. It’s (also) a, ‘do you realize you’re a sinner and what are you going to do to fix it’ moment.”
Despite its problems, Northwestern’s Tim Calkins says the company can still reclaim its once sterling reputation..
“If you take the right steps today, I think Boeing can come across as a brand that is still strong, is still trusted, and maybe is better for all of this,” Calkins says. “But if you don’t (take the right steps), it creates deep, long term problems for the company.”
Boeing may be able to fix the problems that brought down two of its 737 MAX planes, but as it tries to win regulatory approval to return the Max to service early next year, the company faces the additional challenge of rebuilding its once lauded reputation for safety.