More passengers blame Boeing than the FAA and the airline industry, a survey by Atmosphere Research Group finds. However, carriers can’t completely avoid the fallout from Boeing’s damaged reputation.   

Since the grounding of the 737 MAX airplane following two crashes within the last year that killed 346 people, Boeing executives have shifted from defiance to contrite promises in a renewed attempt to regain the approval of aviation regulators and the flying public. 

The past week has brought mixed news for Boeing’s attempts to return the 737 MAX to the skies: on the plus side, the aircraft manufacturer received a boost during the second day of the Paris Air Show when International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and LEVEL, signed a letter of intent to purchase 200 737 MAX 8 and MAX 10 jets. The deal, which is yet to be finalized, is valued at a $24 billion list price, Boeing said in a release

But Boeing’s hopes were dimmed a day later when a Wall Street Journal report cited unidentified sources who claimed new concerns emerged over whether an average pilot would have the strength to physically turn a crank that would change the angle of the plane’s nose in the event of an automated flight-control system malfunction similar to what appeared to be related to the crashes of Indonesia’s Lion Air in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines in March 2019.

There are likely to be more ups and downs for Boeing’s plan to get the 737 MAX back in operation. While the matter of when the 737 MAX will fly again is uncertain, a report [free, registration required] by travel analyst firm Atmosphere Research Group finds that one thing is for sure: consumers are paying very close attention to news about the Boeing jet’s issues. 

Awareness Of The 737 MAX Grounding Remains High 

Still, Atmosphere Research, which surveyed 2,000 US airline passengers ages 18 and older from April 27 to May 1, does find a split in the levels of confidence and concern among “leisure travelers” and business fliers.  

That distinction is likely to determine how Boeing will conduct its return of the 737 MAX. And while the survey notes that the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines themselves have less responsibility than Boeing in raising confidence levels among fliers of all stripes, those entities cannot escape the consequences of the public’s worries. 

Among the report’s topline findings: 

  • 72 percent of US passengers know the 737 MAX is grounded. 
  • Only 14 percent of total U.S. fliers would “definitely fly” on a 737 MAX within six months of its return to service.  
  • A mere “one in five” say they would positively fly on a 737 MAX during its first year back in operation. 
  • More than two in five passengers would take flights “that are less convenient or more 
  • expensive” rather than travel on a 737 MAX jet. 

Vacation Fears 

The survey’s report, written by Atmosphere Research President Henry Harteveldt, notes that most passengers hold Boeing and the FAA responsible for the troubles that led to the 737 MAX’s grounding. 

About 76 percent of business travelers and 72 percent of leisure fliers knew that the FAA had grounded a particular airplane model, Atmosphere says. But when it came to the details about what kind of jet was grounded, 73 percent of leisure travelers correctly identified the 737 MAX as the suspended plane compared to 66 percent of their business flying counterparts, something that surprised Harteveldt. 

“We pondered this, and spent time talking with travelers during our own travels,” Harteveldt wrote. “Leisure travelers fly less often than business travelers, and so they may be more focused on safety. It’s thus possible the news coverage of the 737 MAX’s problems may cause them more concern. Plus, with summer vacations looming, it’s possible leisure passengers may be more focused on the grounding because of possible direct effect on their vacations.” 

Repairing Reputations With ‘Hyper-Transparency’ 

It could be argued that Boeing’s iconic brand status is protected by dint of its storied 103-year history with its recognition for altering the course of commercial aviation with the introduction of the 707 jet in the 1950s and the 747 model in the 1960s, sparking the so-called “golden age of air travel.” 

However the aircraft maker has faced numerous challenges since that period. Even as recently as 2013, the then-new 787-8 Dreamliner saw flights halted due to problems with its use of an ”advanced” lithium-ion battery built by GS Yuasa, a fact which Atmosphere notes in its report. 

While Atmosphere calls for Dennis Muilenberg, Boeing’s chairman, CEO, and president, to step down, that won’t be enough to regain acceptance for the 737 MAX by fliers.  

This time is different. 

“As well-known as Boeing is, the company isn’t a traditional consumer company, it’s business-to-business (B2B),” Harteveldt writes. “Boeing’s direct customers are the airlines and aircraft leasing firms that purchase its aircraft — passengers are Boeing’s customers’ customers. Do passengers’ opinions of the 737 MAX affect their opinions of Boeing itself? They do — massively…. 

“Boeing’s airline customers must also heed travelers’ concerns about the company,” Harteveldt adds. “Boeing is a key partner to hundreds of carriers around the world — 107 airlines have ordered the 737 MAX — but to passengers, that key partner’s reputation is now deeply, darkly tarnished. Airlines cannot allow Boeing’s current image problems to damage their brands, especially given the risk to passengers’ carrier preferences and purchase intentions.” 

Atmosphere’s report says that a full force of “hyper-transparency” will be required on the parts of, not just Boeing and aviation regulators, but also on the part of carriers, to rebuild credibility in the 737 MAX. 

 That will include insights from independent analysts and trusted media outlets. Atmosphere recommends that airline executives, pilots, and union officials convey detailed assurances in video – particularly via television as opposed to social media. 

While social media accounts on Facebook are practically universal, age makes the difference in how most travelers assess the information that influences their decision-making. In this case, just 11 percent of fliers surveyed by Atmosphere were between the ages of 18-24.

Since most travelers in Atmosphere Research’s survey are older, they are still more likely to value traditional media for coverage of the 737 MAX. (Most travelers in general appear to be older, as Airlines For America’s most recent figures indicate that 65 percent of fliers are over 35-years-old, with 35 percent of fliers between 35 and 54, and an additional 30 percent 55 or older.)

“What is clear is this: This story about the 737 MAX’s safety improvements can’t be narrowcast,” Harteveldt writes. “The actions that Boeing, the FAA, and its airline operators will take to fix the 737 MAX, and the importance of all three parties actively and collectively working to restore public trust in the plane, will require an inclusive, exhaustive omnichannel consumer communications program.”