Flyers Wary as Boeing Tries to Get 737 Flying

Chicago Tribune

May 9, 2019

By Lauren Zumbach

In the wake of two deadly crashes, Boeing has said its making progress on efforts to get its grounded 737 Max aircraft approved to fly again. The next challenge: convincing passengers to get back on board.

A new survey by the Barclays investment bank suggests that Boeing has some work to do.

While 19% of travelers said theyd book a flight on a Max as soon as the aircraft returned to the skies, a larger share21%didnt think theyd ever feel comfortable flying on the Max, Barclays said in a note to investors Tuesday.

The survey included 1,756 people in North America and Europe who said they typically fly at least once a year.

Some travelers said they would be comfortable flying on the Max after it had been flying for a while, with 20% saying they would wait a few months and 23% saying they would delay a year or more, according to Barclays. The remaining 17% of people surveyed said they werent sure.

We know we have some work to do to earn and re-earn the trust of our customers and the flying public in particular, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said during a call with investors last month.

Barclays said it lowered its rating of Boeing shares to equal weight from overweight based on the survey results and concerns it could take longer than expected for Boeing to resume building Max aircraft at the pace it had been before the grounding.

The companys shares were down almost 4% as of noon Tuesday.

The more often someone flew, the less likely they were to say theyd be hesitant to fly the Max, according to the Barclays survey results. Travelers in North America also tended to be more confident about the Max than those in Europe.

In North America, almost 40% of people who flew six times a year or more said theyd be willing to board a Max as soon as flights resumed, compared with just 17% of once-a-year flyers, Barclays said.

Most passengers pay a lot more attention to price and schedule than aircraft type when booking tickets.

But after the second Max crash, before the aircraft was grounded worldwide, travelers used social media to ask airlines whether they were scheduled to fly on the Max, and travel booking website Kayak added a feature that let customers filter flight search results by aircraft type.

Robert Mann, a New York-based airline industry consultant, was skeptical that wariness would last. Passengers didnt seem to avoid the Boeing 787 Dreamliner after it was grounded due to problems with overheating batteries in 2013, or the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which was temporarily grounded after a 1979 American Airlines crash at OHare International Airport that killed 273 people, he said.

According to news reports at the time of the OHare crash, United Airlines reported seeing no evidence passengers avoided the DC-10 after flights resumed, while American executives said some customers were wary in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Mann, who said he worked at American at the time of the crash, didnt recall any lasting impact.

Most passengers dont know what theyre flying on, and dont care as long as they get the low fare they want, Mann said.

At Boeings annual meeting last month, Muilenburg said the company is making progress on a software update that will make the aircraft one of the safest airplanes ever to fly. The software fix is meant to address a problem linked to the deadly crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Fixing the problem is the first step, but it takes more to win back consumers confidence, said Kevin McTigue, associate professor of marketing at Northwestern Universitys Kellogg School of Management.

The company will need real, solid proof this is the safest plane it can be, he said. Even after you have the facts, you have to go through the effort of convincing people.

That could involve getting the endorsement of overseas regulatory agencies that were among the first to ground the Max, as well as high-profile individuals who might or might not have aviation expertise.

It wouldnt surprise me to see Trump on a 737, McTigue said.

Muilenburg said Boeing plans to turn to the Maxs pilots.

That bond between the passenger and the pilot is one thats critical. And so were working with our airline customers and those pilot voices to ensure that we can build on that going forward, he said during the call with investors.

United said it is confident in its pilots ability to fly the Max, but that public confidence will come from independent regulators endorsement.

Once regulators have reached an independent conclusion about the safety of the MAX, well be prepared to explain to our customers and employees how our MAX fleet will be put back into service and why we have the highest confidence that it is safe to do so, United said in a statement.

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