Boeing is plotting a low-key comeback for the 737 MAX, the grounded jetliner that has spent almost two years engulfed in controversy and tragedy after two fatal crashes, said people familiar with the matter.
There won’t be an advertising blitz touting the much-anticipated return of Boeing’s best-selling jet from a global flying ban, said the people, who asked not to be named because the deliberations are private.
The company has also dropped plans to fly a rented MAX festooned with its corporate logo around the globe to woo customers and journalists.
Boeing opted for a more muted approach after a public scolding by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and private criticism from airlines over its handling of the Max crisis last year, the people said.
With its reputation in tatters, Boeing is leaning on the FAA, pilots and airlines to assure travelers that the revamped MAX is safe to fly. FAA boss Steve Dickson, a licensed 737 pilot, underscored that message Wednesday by flying a MAX himself for more than 90 minutes over Washington state.
One step in the right direction
Dickson described the test flight as "productive," but said the FAA hasn’t completed its work assessing the fixes needed to return the plane to service.
“I like what I saw this morning,” Dickson said at a post-flight briefing in Seattle. “But we are not at the point yet where we have completed the process.”
While Dickson’s flight isn’t required by FAA rules and has no direct impact on the plane’s certification, it marked a symbolic milestone as the company and airlines prepare to resume flights on the controversial plane.
Dickson stopped short of endorsing the jet’s return. He said the controls felt “very comfortable” during maneuvers to test the revised system linked to two fatal crashes, and the training he received left him “very prepared.”
He said he didn’t have trouble manually adjusting the trim, which raises and lowers the plane’s nose if the electrical system is off-line. Pilots in an Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, 2019, had difficulty doing so and pilot unions have asked for more training on the process.
At the same time, he also said he had discovered “a few items” that he wants to raise with Boeing and his team oversees the plane’s certification. The unspecified issues have to do with how the proposed new documentation is worded, he said.
Change in tactics
The jet, Boeing’s best-selling model, was grounded in March 2019 after two crashes left 346 people dead. A software system implicated in both crashes was redesigned and the FAA is also requiring Boeing to rework potentially dangerous wiring and to revise the design of the plane’s flight computers.
The FAA could give final approval to the fixes soon and is also preparing to release proposed new pilot-training requirements. Other regulators in Europe and elsewhere have said they are also close to approving the plane.
Boeing said it’s following “the lead of global regulators on the rigorous process they have laid out for certifying the 737 MAX to return it safely to commercial service. We also are working to provide all necessary support to our customers around the world as they plan a safe and smooth return to service.”
“They need to put their heads down, be disciplined and start racking up safe flight hours,” Jeff Eller, who heads a crisis-response firm in Austin, Texas, said of Boeing. “They dug a hole, they have to fill the hole and then they have to rise above the hole.”
Boeing's brand tarnished
Eller pointed to parallels to the less-is-more strategy that helped Firestone emerge from scandal and tragedy in the early 2000s. He advised the company as it responded to accidents involving Ford's Explorer that killed 271 people and sparked the largest tire recall in U.S. history.
Many travelers can’t tell a Boeing aircraft from an Airbus plane, said aviation consultant Robert Mann.
But when a jet’s brand has been as badly damaged as the MAX's, airlines have to walk a fine line between being upfront and alarming travelers.
Over the years, carriers have found that consumers are willing to move on if the aircraft proves to be safe and reliable, he said.
“If you have to answer people’s questions, answer them,” Mann said. He worked at American when the airline and McDonnell Douglasreintroduced the DC-10 jetliner with little fuss following a 1979 grounding, after authorities linked a crash that killed 273 people to improper maintenance.
The MAX debacle, by contrast, involved flawed engineering assumptions in the design of the plane. The grounding of Boeing’s workhorse single-aisle jetliner sparked worldwide fury at a pillar of U.S. industry. British tabloids dubbed it the “death jet.”
Boeing was slow to apologize and acknowledge mistakes with software linked to the two crashes, which killed 346 people, and the company’s self-inflicted damage worsened as crucial information trickled out over months.
Victims’ family members – a group that includes consumer advocate Ralph Nader – vowed to block the MAX's return.
A year ago, Boeing had small armies of consultants providing sometimes conflicting advice on crisis management and branding, said the people familiar with the matter.
The company plotted a sweeping marketing campaign that even scripted talking points and videos that airlines could use with their pilots, front-line employees and passengers.
But as the public clamor deepened, the U.S. MAX operators pushed back, concerned the messaging was tone-deaf. Boeing eventually scrapped the effort.
This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here