Flyers reluctant to use Boeing 737 Max when it returns to service

13 June 2019 4 min. read
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A recent survey of 2,000 travelers in the US has found that confidence in Boeing’s 737 Max commercial airplane has hit rock-bottom. Less than one-fifth of flyers said they would be willing board the plane in the first six months after it is allowed to return to service.

Following fatal crashes in Indonesia (October 2018) and Ethiopia (March 2019) which killed more than 300 people, all of Boeing's operational 737 Max aircraft were subsequently grounded.

The regulators investigating the crashes, including the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), determined shortcomings in Boeing's software, warning systems, and pilot training. Safety experts are critical of how well the FAA and Boeing vetted the plane before it received the green light to fly, and how well pilots around the world were trained for the unique aspects of the Boeing's 737 Max.

Experts surmise a new automated system intended to prevent stalling by dipping the plane’s nose may have played a role in both fatal crashes. The US government has, meanwhile, opened an audit into the FAA’s certification process of the aircraft.

The Boeing 737 Max is the company's latest plane in its successful 737 line of commercial aircraft, which was first introduced in 1968. The Max, which was introduced in 2017 and can carry a maximum of 210 passengers to a range of approximately 6,500 kilometres, is the fastest-selling in Boeing's history. More than 4,500 have been ordered (350 delivered so far) by 100 different operators, including Flydubai, Ryanair, Jet Airways, Korean Air, and Norwegian Air Shuttle.

Flyers reluctant to use Boeing 737 Max when it returns to service

Among the US airlines that have ordered 737 Maxes are Alaska Airlines (32 planes), American Airlines (100), Southwest Airlines (280), and United Airlines (137).

The timeline for when Boeing’s 737 Maxes will be given the green light to fly again is, as yet, unclear. The company says it’s making progress on getting its software fix approved by the FAA, but has stopped giving public estimates on final approval.

Besides clearing the FAA, Boeing has to clear more than 30 other airline regulators across the globe who may be reluctant to simply follow the FAA’s ruling. As of now, American Airlines and Southwest have cancelled 737 Max flight schedules until at least August.

When the Maxes fly again, however, passengers may be reluctant to travel on the tainted planes despite being cleared for take-off.

“Only after a year without any technical problems could the Boeing 737 Max rebuild some confidence with travelers,” said Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group, a US research and advisory firm for the travel industry.

The Boeing brand has obviously taken a serious hit from the affair. “Alongside the billions in damages due to loss of production and claims from airlines, Boeing’s reputation is [for the moment] ruined,” Harteveldt added.

The survey from Atmosphere Research Group found that many air travelers are willing to buy more expensive tickets or settle for less comfort or longer journeys to avoid using the Boeing 737 Max. Nearly half of leisure passengers said they would consider paying $80 more for a round trip on a different plane.

“Of course, that feeling will gradually fade,” said Harteveldt. “But even if only one in ten passengers would really fear the Max in the coming year, that would translate into a huge extra burden for Boeing and the dozens of airlines that fly with the plane.”

Flawed development

“We see that respect for the company has plummeted because Boeing has – in the eyes of the society – taken an irresponsible and arrogant attitude,” Harteveldt continued. “Only complete openness and clear communication can help the globe’s largest aircraft manufacturer restore confidence.”

He believes some measure of accountability needs to be demonstrated to the public, including potentially some high-level dismissals, “because it is becoming increasingly clear that blunders have been made during the design, development and certification phase of the Boeing 737 Max.”

Led by CEO Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing has thus far put off any high-level layoffs following the string of errors made in its internal organisation.

In a statement, Muilenburg said the company is doing everything it can to maintain safety and regain public confidence. “We are working closely with the inspections in America and other countries to update the Max so that it can fly safely again. Our engineers and test pilots are working on this on a daily basis. The systems and sensors on board must never lead to accidents like this again.”