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.”

“Boeing has put the airlines in a difficult position,” said Brett Snyder, an aviation expert and founder of the blog Cranky Flier. “No consumer is buying a Boeing product; they’re buying the airline product. On the one hand, you want to reassure people that it’s safe and your pilots are qualified, trained and tested. But on the other hand, the more visibility you bring to this, the more it sticks in people’s minds.”

Seth Kaplan, an aviation and airline expert, agreed.

“When a company like Boeing is in the news, it’s not usually good,” he said. “They’re basically going to let the airlines speak for themselves.”

When asked about how Southwest would be handling the return of the 737 Max 8, a spokesperson with the airline said, “We’ll be providing ample resources for customers to educate them on all aspects of the Max and the impending changes once they are final—including software and training.”

That would include videos, visuals and FAQs, the spokesperson said. “Our philosophy is to be completely open and transparent with our customers, just as they’ve come to expect from Southwest. … If a customer is concerned about flying on a Max, we will offer them the flexibility to change their itinerary.”

Public concern

And the public is concerned. According to a survey by travel industry market research firm Atmosphere Research, 72% of leisure travelers who had taken at least one flight in the past year knew the Max had been grounded. Just 14% of those surveyed said they would “definitely fly” on the Max within six months of its return to service, and only one in five would fly in its first year. Two in five passengers would take less convenient or more expensive flights to avoid the 737 Max 8.

Consumer awareness on such a large scale is notable considering Boeing services airlines and not customers directly.

“Not only are people aware of the grounding, they can name the 737 Max specifically,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, adding that awareness is largely due to the media attention the Max has received since its grounding.

“Even a broken coffee pot on a 737 could become front-page news,” Harteveldt added.

According to Atmosphere Research’s survey, what 48% of travelers want most is a video explaining the changes made to the 737 Max 8. But according to Eric Dezenhall, author of Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal, what consumers say they want and what they actually want are two very different things.

“Focus groups will tell you they want safety and information—they don’t. There’s no benefit to the airlines to be discussing safety,” Dezenhall said. “In fact, the more you talk about it, the worse it can be.”

Dezenhall doesn’t anticipate Boeing or the airlines initiating any traditional advertising, especially considering the complexity of what caused the crash.

"Even a broken coffee pot on a 737 could become front-page news."
Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research

“It’s an engineering problem first; it’s a public relations problem downstream,” Dezenhall said.

Kaplan said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the company emphasize its long history, pointing to Boeing’s century-long involvement in air travel. “Maybe a Sunday morning news appearance, an ad with calm music—there’s really no playbook for what to do here,” he said. “The advertisers, marketers and corporate communications people at these airlines are going to be earning their paycheck.”

Mark Pasetsky, the founder of public relations firm Mark Allen & Co., which handles crisis communications, predicts that Boeing will find itself on an outlet like 60 Minutes, giving its journalists full access.

“Any question they want to ask, any video they want to take, interview the CEO… It’s going to take a lot to believe that this is really safe,” Pasetsky said, adding that it didn’t help that the name of the plane is more memorable than other Boeing models.

But ultimately, according to Dezenhall, there is one simple goal for the airlines and Boeing: getting the plane in the sky.

“There’s no cure for a controversy like this better than the planes being in the sky,” he said. “It won’t vanish as much as it will recede.”

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.