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,” said Collet, 43. “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 (FAA) 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.
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% 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. 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.”
For Boeing, all roads to winning back consumer confidence must go through transparency, several experts agreed. Time will also help, they said.
“Memories recede and new problems arise,” Schenkler said. “In a year from now, this may seem a distant concern — unless another MAX-737 disaster scorches the headlines.”
When General Motors faced a similar crisis with its Chevrolet Cobalt, manufactured with a faulty ignition switch that turned the car off while driving, GM dismissed the problem as a customer inconvenience rather than undergoing a costly recall to fix it. Eventually, the matter exploded into a full-blown company crisis: At least 124 people were killed and 275 more hurt in accidents. GM ultimately paid $2.5 billion in fines and settlements, including $900 million to the U.S. Justice Department to settle a criminal case.
“That was four years ago,” said Helio Fred Garcia, who teaches crisis management at New York University and Columbia University. “Most people have forgotten it. The CEO at the time of the settlement is still the CEO, and GM is doing fine.”
But other reputable companies with top products have countered disaster and quickly restored trust behind more assertive strategies.
Johnson & Johnson overcame the Tylenol cyanide poisonings in the Chicago area in 1982 that left seven people dead with an aggressive response that included a recall and introduction of tamper-resistant packaging. The response, which helped reform safety protocols throughout the pharmaceutical industry, won wide praise.
When Jack in the Box faced crisis in 1993, after E. coli-tainted hamburgers killed four children and sickened hundreds of other customers, the fast-food chain’s initial reaction was “denial and fight,” recalled Marler, the food safety lawyer.
“They were letting the insurance company and their lawyers sort of run things,” said Marler, who represented hundreds of victims and their families in lawsuits against the chain. “But within 60 days of the outbreak, they fired their lawyers and changed everything.”
The new strategy focused on transparency, with the company owning its failures and offering to pay victims’ medical bills with no strings attached, Marler said. Jack in the Box hired a prominent food safety expert, giving him complete authority to implement new food handling and cooking protocols that have since been adopted throughout the fast food industry.
Juice-maker Odwalla also responded swiftly when, in 1996, its unpasteurized apple juices spawned an E. coli outbreak that killed a 16-month old girl and sickened 66 other people in Washington. Company co-founder Greg Steltenpohl quickly traveled from California to Seattle Children’s hospital to visit Marler’s client: a boy who suffered kidney damage from drinking tainted juice.
“This kid, 3 years old, was still getting dialysis,” Marler said. “And this executive was just overwhelmed — not only with seeing the boy but just the enormity of what this all meant for a company he’d helped build from nothing.”
Marler said Stetlenpohl asked him and the boy’s parents for advice. They told him Odwalla needed to make a public apology, contain the outbreak and commit itself to food safety.
The company promptly held a news conference, parroting much of the advice, Marler said. Odwalla voluntarily recalled juices from thousands of stores and later introduced new safety protocols, including flash pasteurization. It eventually pleaded guilty to 16 criminal counts and received the court’s permission to donate part of its $1.5 million fine to food safety research.
Boeing, after initial floundering, has set up a $50 million compensation fund for victims’ families, though experts say the company and its insurers eventually may shell out as much as $3 billion. It also announced an internal restructuring that emphasizes safety and, following a congressional grilling, CEO Dennis Muilenburg this month offered to forgo his 2019 bonuses.
But it also took Muilenburg a full year after the first crash before he last month met personally with family members of crash victims, and then, only when the relatives already planned to convene in Washington, D.C., to watch Boeing’s brass testify before two congressional committees.
“I think how Boeing has handled the 737 MAX crisis will become a case study,” Harteveldt said. “They’re starting to get better, but still not as good as they could be.”
In some ways, Boeing’s crisis is unique. The MAX’s grounding is unlike the only other previous FAA groundings — McDonnell Douglas’ DC-10 in 1979, due to an engine separating from a wing; and Boeing’s 787 in 2013, due to battery fires — because its problems don’t simply stem from aircraft part failures, but also involve oversight problems and how pilots respond to an emergency.
The DC-10, which crashed just after takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and killed 273 people, remained in service for nearly three more decades, but never shook off pejorative nicknames, including the “Death Cruiser 10.”
“The world is very different from what it was 40 years ago,” Harteveldt said. “We have 24/7 news cycles, social media and aviation blogs covering every development. That’s a challenge for Boeing. No matter what happens when the MAX goes back into service, from now on every incident involving this airplane, no matter how minor, will be news.”
Before passengers can forget about the MAX’s troubled past, Garcia said, Boeing and its airline customers must figure out how to get passengers back on the plane. One likely method? Offering deep discounts, he said.
“Once the MAX is back in action and part of the ordinary flight lineup, people are likely to forget there was even an issue,” Garcia said.
With thousands of MAXs on order or already delivered, Boeing is tied to both airlines and the FAA in figuring how to solve the trust problem.
Within days of final FAA clearance, American Airlines plans to begin flying the MAX regularly with media as well as airline executives and employees on board, spokesman Ross Feinstein said. This is a deliberate strategy to gain acceptance for the jet.
“The goal is that on customer day one, it will have been flying for a month,” he said.
American also will rebook any customers who aren’t comfortable flying on the plane and won’t charge the standard $200 fee for changing a ticket.
Southwest Airlines, with more MAXs in its fleet than any other carrier, plans a forthright approach when it returns the jet to service.
“When we get questions from flight attendants or passengers, we’re not hiding it,” said Matt Cain, safety chair of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union, speaking at a conference in September. “We’re flying a MAX. It’ll be the safest airplane around.”
World traveler Angus Mordant said he’ll wait to see if that’s the case.
“I’m not convinced it’s safe yet,” said Mordant, 28, a freelance photojournalist who lives in New York City and has taken more than 900 flights. “I would want to see it in the air at least a year, maybe two, before I would fly it again.”
But some frequent flyers already say they don’t need assurances.
Pedro Medelius, 63, a Cocoa Beach, Florida-based scientist who works for a private NASA contractor and flies upward of 200,000 miles annually, said he won’t be among those who avoid the MAX when it returns to flight.
“With all the scrutiny Boeing is going through right now, it’s going to be the safest plane to fly,” Medelius said. “I will be more than happy to take the first flight out.”