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Nov 15, 2019

How airlines can make travellers feel safe when Boeing’s 737 Max returns to the skies

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Earlier this week, Boeing Co. provided a clearer picture of when its 737 Max jets could return to service, but the airline industry faces an uphill battle to ensure travellers feel comfortable boarding the plane when it’s finally cleared to fly.

The company said Monday it’s hoping the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will certify redesigned flight-control software for the Max by mid-December, potentially clearing the way for commercial service to resume early next year if regulators sign off on pilot training protocols in January.  But the question of whether passengers will feel safe boarding the aircraft remains to be seen, and so it’s imperative for the airline industry to reassure passengers, according to Bob Pickard, managing partner at National Public Relations.

“While the PR onus is on Boeing as the manufacturer, the carriers themselves have a pressing corporate communication imperative, which they need to address through their own communication of reassurance to mass audiences of consumers so that the 737 MAX takes flight again not as dangerously infamous but as safely improved,” he told BNN Bloomberg in an email.

Boeing has faced criticism for its handling of the the crisis, which saw its 737 Max grounded in March after two of the jets crashed, killing 346 people in five months. CEO Dennis Muilenburg endured hours of public questioning by U.S. lawmakers to address what went wrong with the aircraft, but his testimony was chastised for leaving too many questions unanswered.

Toronto-based software developer and avid traveller Jon Prindiville said his decision to board a 737 Max will depend on the recertification process.

“If I'm looking at two relatively similar flights, one on a recertified 737 MAX, one on another aircraft, I'd certainly consider choosing the other aircraft,” he told BNN Bloomberg.

He added the assurance of the plane’s safety should come from regulatory bodies such as Transport Canada or the Federal Aviation Administration rather than from the airlines themselves.

“Are we simply going to trust Boeing's word again?,” he said.  

WestJet CEO Ed Sims says he'll take family on first Boeing 737 Max flight

At the airline's annual meeting on Tuesday, WestJet CEO Ed Sims said he plans to take his family on the first flight of the Boeing 737 Max jet once it's ruled that it's ready to fly. BNN Bloomberg's Tara Weber reports.

Pickard said “residual respect” for Boeing prior to the crisis makes the public want the company to succeed, adding airline leaders like WestJet Airlines Ltd. CEO Ed Sims – who has said he would take his family on the first 737 Max flight once it’s deemed fit to fly –  need to show their confidence in the aircraft in order to reassure passengers.

“The WestJet CEO’s family commitment sends a powerful confidence signal to passengers,” Pickard said.  “As the personification of the brand, the CEO has a duty not just to talk like a leader, but to act like one, and that’s what he is doing.”

Airline industry expert Helane Becker says the fallout of the crisis for the broader industry will depend on travellers’ willingness to board the jets.

“The question to the customer is, if they show up at the gate for their long-awaited vacation and there is a Max sitting there, will they ask to be rebooked to another flight?,” said Becker, who is managing director and senior research analyst at Cowen & Co.

“Given [the high percentage of occupied seats], the next non-Max flight might be later the same day or another day. Will the customer forgo their vacation to wait to fly another aircraft, and what if a MAX shows up again?”

Pickard added that while Boeing’s communication has progressively improved since the fatal crashes, whether or not passengers decide to board the 737 Max comes down to experience.

“It has been said that companies cannot talk their way out of problems they acted themselves into, so the proof of the PR pudding will be in the customer experience of flying Boeing’s repaired aircraft,” he said.