Boeing plans a quiet comeback for 737 Max as grounding nears end

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Boeing Co. 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, 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 Administrator Steve Dickson, a licensed 737 pilot, plans to underscore that message Wednesday by flying a Max himself.

“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.”

Brand Damage

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 Motor Co.’s Explorer that killed 271 people and sparked the largest tire recall in U.S. history.

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.”

Many travelers can’t tell a Boeing aircraft from an Airbus SE 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 is able to restore its image as safe and reliable, he said.

“If you have to answer people’s questions, answer them,” Mann said. He worked at American when the company and McDonnell Douglas Corp. reintroduced the DC-10 jetliner with little fuss following a 1979 grounding, after authorities linked a crash that killed 273 people to improper maintenance.

Max Flaws

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.

Now, airlines don’t want to reignite the Max controversy at a time when, according to Google Trends, consumers are less focused on the plane. The coronavirus pandemic and U.S. presidential election are dominating public attention, and giving Boeing a chance to reset expectations for its jet.

The campaign starts with the FAA’s Dickson, who is also working to undo some of the damage to his agency’s standing after it signed off on the Max’s initial design. Shortly after taking over at the FAA last year, he vowed to fly the jet himself before it’s approved for the public.

He’s set to fulfill that promise Wednesday — with a Boeing test pilot at his side — after taking the training course that is expected to be approved for pilots returning to the plane.

U.S. airlines are still fine-tuning their plans to reintroduce the Max to their own staff and the flying public. Since the grounding is expected to be lifted first in the U.S., their efforts to win over fliers will be closely watched.

Southwest Airlines Co., the model’s largest operator, said it intends to “educate stakeholders” once there’s a firm date for the aircraft to resume flying. The carrier plans town halls and road shows, incorporating virtual elements because of the pandemic. It will be “at least a couple of months” from the date the Max is ungrounded by the FAA to when it makes revenue flights at Southwest, Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven has said.

—The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association plans its own passenger confidence campaign, sidestepping a joint promotional push with the carrier, said Jon Weaks, the labor union’s president. Pilots want travelers to know “we’re not doing this for Southwest, we’re not doing it for Boeing or for the FAA,” he said. “We’re doing it for you. You have our word and we have your back.”

—United Airlines Holdings Inc. is planning to notify customers when they’ll be flying on a Max through its website and mobile app. The airline is also mulling whether to make gate announcements to alert customers that they’re boarding a Max. If another aircraft has a mechanical problem, United has said it won’t use a Max to replace it, at least for several months. It hasn’t decided how long that policy will last.

—American Airlines Group Inc. said its plans for restoring customer confidence with the Max “are in the works.” The company declined further comment.

—The Allied Pilots Association, representing aviators at American, is taking a independent stance from the carrier on plans to restore passenger confidence.

“When the Max is fixed, fully vetted by all stakeholders, and we are robustly trained, we will be at the flight deck welcoming passengers,” said Dennis Tajer, a union spokesman. “We’re not brand ambassadors, we are the last line of defense for passenger safety and that’s not a marketing campaign.”


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