Will passengers ever feel good about the 737 Max again?

A grounded Garuda Indonesia Max plane.
A grounded Garuda Indonesia Max plane.
Image: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan
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One of the greatest achievements of modern aviation is the relative ignorance of the passenger who steps onto the plane. Few who are not aviation geeks know the model or manufacturer of the aircraft they’ve booked, and even fewer would opt to book one aircraft over another.

Until very recently, commercial aviation largely took that for granted. But in the wake of the 737 Max groundings, a question about consumer perception looms heavy over the industry. Will the questions about Boeing’s manufacturing of the Max and the FAA’s certification of it mean that passengers begin to think twice about what kind of aircraft they are stepping onto?

Last week, Barclays downgraded its rating of Boeing’s shares due a survey indicating passengers might be reluctant to fly on the Max, even when it’s re-certified to fly. The investment bank polled roughly 1,700 American and European passengers, 52% of whom said they would choose a different aircraft type from the Max if given the choice. In addition, 44% said they would wait a year or more to fly on the plane once it re-enters service.

“Most investors we speak with believe there will be minimal apprehension to fly the Max upon re-entry into service and airlines that have large Max fleets have echoed this sentiment,” a note to investors read. “We’ve thought there’s risk that it could be worse this time than following past incidents given social media and fliers’ ability to know the aircraft type in advance of booking.”

It’s worth noting that if the findings of these surveys prove to be true down the line, it’d be a departure from the status quo. Samuel Engel, an aviation consultant with ICF, says everything we know about consumer behavior when it comes to booking a flight indicates that passengers are “remarkable in their focus on price and schedule.”

“Economists have a notion of what they call ‘revealed preference’ … if you’re trying to understand customer demand, don’t look at what people say they’ll do, look at how they spend their money,” Engel said. “In aviation, customers reveal their demand day after day by choosing the lowest fare with a tolerable schedule.”

While he concedes that there will always be a relatively small group of what he calls “marginal flyers” or “people who are really scared of flying and are right on the edge about whether they’re willing to take a trip,” the vast majority of moderately nervous flyers just “get on with it” and book the flight. 

That said, Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says there is one way in which the Max incident is an outlier: It’s the most high-profile worldwide grounding of a major aircraft in the social-media era. While the 787 fleet was grounded in 2013 due to engine problems, that move came before any tragic accidents occurred—meaning most passengers likely remained unaware that their Dreamliners had been temporarily swapped out for other planes.

And indeed, nothing short of a deluge of information has filled headlines and social networks since the two crashes. The internet age not only gives companies like Boeing much less control over the narrative than they might’ve had in previous cases, it also gives more power to consumers to know what aircraft they might be on at the time they book their flight, using sites like SeatGuru or online booking sites. 

“What is a wild card here is social media,” Aboulafia said. “And whether or not this product reputational damage can be repaired in the minds of the public, and I just don’t know the answer to that. The only other parallels in history” such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 “the [damage] went away pretty quick, but that was before social media.”

In a statement, Boeing told Quartz the company is taking a “comprehensive, disciplined” approach to completing the software update to fix MCAS, and is aware of the need to regain the flying public’s confidence. 

“We are focused on earning their trust and supporting all of our customers around the world in every way possible to ensure complete confidence in the 737 Max and a safe return to commercial flight,” a spokesperson said. “We’re also listening to the flying public to ensure we consider their feedback about our communications as we finish up the certification process on the software update and return the 737 Max safely to flight.”

It may well be the case that the technical fix Boeing rolls out in the coming months will make the Max safe again. But due to the nature of this moment—including questions surrounding whether the FAA has ceded too much oversight to manufacturers—regaining customer trust may extend far beyond just fixing the Max. Sara Nelson, the international president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 Flight Attendants at 20 airlines, said that regaining trust is about restoring faith in the entire commercial aviation system. 

“Americans take for granted that the United States has the safest aviation system in the world … But we are hearing from crew and passengers who want to know with absolute certainty the issues at Boeing are fixed before some will feel comfortable to get back on the Max,” Nelson wrote in a statement to Quartz. “This is not just about the mechanical issues; it is about how Boeing approached the entire release of this plane to our skies and the way the manufacturer responded to this crisis. And this isn’t just about Boeing—it is about the oversight of the FAA that has been a world leader and standard bearer for aviation safety.”

Aboulafia believes there is little doubt the Max will once again be safe to fly, but concedes there is a possibility the aircraft’s reputational repair may not happen in tandem. 

“Technically, there is no reason this can’t be just as safe a plane as all the other 737s,” Aboulafia said. “But will public perception of that change this dynamic? I just don’t know.”