How Will Airlines Handle the Return of Boeing’s 737 Max 8?

Asking customers to fly on a jet that's crashed twice in a year is a tough sell

A Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane
As airlines reintroduce the plane, their challenge is to emphasize safety without causing further public concern.
Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images

On a late May day in 1979, an American Airlines flight lost its left engine during takeoff, forcing it to arc and roll before crashing in a field not far from its runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. All 273 people aboard were killed.

Within two weeks, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the plane, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, now dubbed the “Death Cruiser-10” by a horrified public.

Needless to say, McDonnell Douglas needed a rebrand. J. Walter Thompson created a print and television campaign, which emphasized the airplane manufacturer as a leader in “aerospace technology.”

The campaign did not mention the crash.

At the time Adweek wrote that a McDonnell Douglas spokesperson faced “hostile questions” and that the campaign “may stir up more controversy and lead to renewed public concern about the safety of the aircraft.”

Now, almost 40 years later, Boeing, which absorbed McDonnell Douglas in the late ’90s, is facing an almost identical crisis, as it tries to fix both a troubled plane and troubling public perception.

In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 out of Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew on board. In March, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plummeted into a farm field, killing all 157 on board.

Both airlines were flying Boeing 737 Max 8s, a plane used by American Airlines, Southwest and United, among other international carriers.

Three days after the Ethiopian crash, the FAA grounded the plane. While both crashes are still under investigation, it is believed that a faulty sensor forced the jet’s nose downward without the pilot’s input. Boeing included the software without informing 737 Max 8 pilots, and there has been speculation that the manufacturer rushed the plane through the FAA’s certification process.

A multiagency task force created by the FAA and international regulators found fault with Boeing and the FAA. The same day, Boeing’s board stripped its CEO of chairman duties to focus his efforts on the return of the 737 Max 8.

International regulators are worried and yet, despite looming congressional investigations, there are signs the 737 Max 8 could soon be back in the sky after spending almost seven months on the ground, the longest grounding in FAA history.

Boeing representatives say they expect the plane to return to service by the end of the year. Earlier this week, American Airlines announced it expects to operate the 737 Max 8 by mid-January. So, as airlines reintroduce the plane, how do they emphasize its safety without causing further public concern?

A McDonnell Douglas DC-10 crashed in 1979, killing 273.
Getty Images

‘Following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline’

Each of the U.S. airlines flying the 737 Max 8 told Adweek that while plans hadn’t been finalized, they would inevitably do something to accommodate worried travelers.

“Details regarding policies and procedures for customers who do not wish to fly on the Max … will be released in the coming weeks,” American Airlines said in its statement.

When asked about American’s announcement and the 737 Max 8 recertification process, the FAA sent a statement that read in part, “The FAA is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline. … [We] will lift the aircraft’s prohibition order when it is deemed safe to do so. The FAA is continuing to evaluate Boeing’s software modification and is still developing necessary training requirements.”

Southwest, the airline most impacted by the grounding—5% of its fleet is made up of 737 Max 8s—has removed the plane from its flying schedule as far out as January and is “awaiting further guidance from Boeing and the FAA.”

A spokesperson with United said the airline would rebook passengers “as needed if they do not want to fly on the Max.”

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