The steady drumbeat of negative news about Boeing’s struggles to address the issues with its grounded 737 MAX jet has only added to the aviation manufacturer’s troubled perception with the global flying public.

It’s been five months since the 737 MAX was grounded worldwide by individual nations’ regulators. The moves followed the crashes of Indonesia’s Lion Air in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines in March 2019 that resulted in the total deaths of 346 people on board the two planes. Investigators have indicated that the anti-stall function in the Boeing 737 MAX’s MCAS software system may have reacted similarly in both fatal incidents and the manufacturer has been working to update the software in order to return the plane to service.

Last month, travel and hospitality industry consultancy Atmosphere Research Group released a survey of 2,000 U.S. airline passengers ages 18 and older seeking to get a sense of consumer attitudes about Boeing and the 737 MAX. The survey, taken between April 27 to May 1, found that consumers, particularly self-identified “leisure travelers,” would expect to remain highly anxious about flying on a 737 MAX even a year after regulators give Boeing and airlines approval to restart service.

As we reported last month, the report’s main findings were:

  • 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.     

Kambr Media followed up with the author of the report, Atmosphere Research President Henry Harteveldt, about where consumer perception about Boeing and 737 MAX is likely to go. We also discussed what airlines need to do to reassure fliers, and why – and when – Boeing’s chief needs to step down from the company.

Kambr Media: What was the aim of the Boeing 737 MAX research report?

Henry Harteveldt:  The aim was to discover how airline passengers felt about the 737 MAX grounding. Was it a real concern in their minds or not? The grounding has certainly been a big media story. It certainly is a subject of great interest and discussion within the airline industry, but to what degree has this topic filtered through into travelers? And how aware are they? Are they concerned enough that they would be willing to change their travel behaviors?

Were the findings in line with what you expected from consumers’ attitudes and concern

Almost everything in this report surprised me. I was surprised by the high level of awareness of the problem, the large number of people who could specifically name the 737 MAX as the grounded plane, and the abject fear that exists. The fact that business and leisure travelers alike are saying, “I don't want to get on this plane – even a year out” was eye-opening to me.

A lot of the respondents said they would have concerns about flying on the MAX. And the fact that so many people said that given the 737 MAX or options that are less convenient, less efficient, or more expensive would opt for the other options – the “non-737 MAX” options – really took me by surprise.

I was also shocked by how people's opinions of Boeing had changed. Pre-737 MAX, people viewed Boeing in a way the company probably would have been comfortable with. They were simply considered a big, large global corporate entity. But it was an entity that was trustworthy. A name that once stood for trust and safety and reliability. Boeing is now a tainted brand, viewed as irresponsible, arrogant and unsafe,

The saying, "If it's not Boeing, I'm not going," is now considered almost dirty. It's a bad name. That really surprised me.

A month ago, a friend told me how she and her husband were panicked when they noticed they were flying on a 737-800 because they confused it with the MAX. How do you think just the “737” by itself is  tarnished?

That's an interesting question. I had a similar experience in April. I was returning from Atlanta to San Francisco on Delta and we were on a 737-900. People were getting on the plane and then going up to the cockpit, asking the pilot, “Are we on the 737 MAX?” One of the pilots came on the PA and said, "Folks, I've gotten a lot of questions from you about the 737 MAX. I understand why you're asking this. That plane is grounded. No airline that has it is operating with it right now. Delta doesn't have it and we don't have it on order so you don't have to worry about that."

The pilot proceeded to explain the type of plane we were on and calmed everybody down. The flight attendants later told me that they'd been getting these questions all the time and that their family and friends were also asking them.

Will airlines have to do more to reassure passengers know even though most people know the MAX is grounded?

The airlines are very concerned about regaining passengers’ trust, and they know they can’t just issue press releases that state “everything is fine” and call it a day. Our report showed that passengers expect hyper-transparency in terms of the information shared by Boeing, the FAA, and airlines. They want detailed videos that show and explain the changes Boeing has made to the MAX’s flight control software. They want information-rich videos and interactive Q&A sessions with Boeing engineers, FAA staff, and airlines’ chief pilots. They want to hear the opinions of credible, objective, trustworthy third-party experts.

When the grounding is lifted, airlines will have to determine whether and how they promote their non-MAX fleet against their MAX aircraft.  Will airlines feel obliged to highlight, or will they attempt to obscure, their MAX-operated flights? On one hand, airlines don’t want passengers to find themselves on a MAX-operated flight, be unhappy, and have to rebook the customer. Yet the airlines have a fiduciary responsibility to their stakeholders to fill as many seats, on as many flights, as they’re able.  Airplanes are expensive, and they have to be paid for.

It was very telling that when IAG, the parent to British Airways, announced its provisional order for 200 MAX jets that the MAX name never appeared in the press release. The absence of the MAX name in the release acknowledged that there's a problem.

There’s been wide speculation that the 737 MAX will simply be rebranded. What do you think the impact will be?

In 1982, Tylenol had a terrible problem. But they didn't change the name “Tylenol.” They changed the packaging to make it safer.

Boeing has taken many questionable actions with the MAX’s problems. For example, not letting the FAA know for 13 months about a software problem that they knew about.

But, this is not a branding problem, it is a safety problem. I believe if Boeing takes the right approach towards fixing the MAX, and if the plane is proven safe and recertified, then they can regain the public's trust. But it will take time – years, possibly, effort, and will have to be authentic.

Is there a direct role for the airlines to play here as well?

The airlines have already started discussing what they need to do. But the challenge is that every time they think the plane is ready to come back, something new comes up. And that something new is usually very serious.

No one will be able to press release their way out of this problem, whether it’s Boeing, an airline, or the FAA. Each of these parties will have to do an awful lot to regain passengers' trust.

That means producing a lot of content, some of which may be very technical in nature. You would never think all the entities involved would ever have had to do that. But people are so terrified about the MAX at this point that the details have to be there. They could also offer a summary of those details, and then let people discover the points at their own pace.

It could feature interviews with chief pilots and mechanics, engineers, and other professionals could help Boeing regain the public’s confidence. It can be done.

Your report also takes the FAA to task for its cozy relationship with Boeing in approving the MAX. What actions do regulators need to take?

The FAA has to show that it is not cutting Boeing any slack. There's no question that the FAA and airlines have for decades had a very cozy relationship. By the way, this is true not just with U.S. airlines, but regulators and airlines in other countries. In the past, you could argue that that cozy relationship worked and worked well. In this case, somehow the FAA allowed itself to be misled – or was lazy.

What the FAA has to do is show that it has been thorough, exhaustive, and focused on safety. This isn't about revenge on Boeing. This is about making sure they do their job and showing people that they did it. I think then the FAA will have to reexamine the processes it takes to review and certify new aircraft going forward.

The FAA has said that they would need 10,000 more employees to do what they need to do if they were not to rely on Boeing and other manufacturers. Airbus, Embraer, etc.

A lot of these positions are highly-skilled engineering or technologically-focused jobs. In addition to being exhaustive in its review, the FAA has to be more public in its communications of its approval process. The FAA is not really used to public communications. And it doesn't help right now that they have an acting administrator, especially since it's uncertain when they will have a full-time administrator appointed.

What the FAA has to do is examine not just where they are now, but what do they need to do going forward, so that when the FAA says something is good or bad, the public doesn't question it.

The airlines themselves may be struggling with some of this because, ultimately, what the airlines do will be a function of determining how long it will take to get the 737 MAX fixed. They’re still asking, “What are the problems? How long does it take to fix these problems and when will this process be completed?”

Dennis Muilenburg, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of The Boeing Company.

How does the cloud the FAA is under affect how airlines have to communicate to the public in terms of comforting travelers’ anxieties?

I've heard from some airlines that much of what they were contemplating was confirmed through the research we did. People want to hear from airlines’ chief pilots. The airlines are still debating this. “Do people want to hear from a chief pilot? Would they want to hear from their CEO or not? Who would have more credibility? What would people respond to?”

I'll be the first to say that research is helpful, but it's not always perfect. A lot depends on the individual or individuals delivering the message. One airline CEO may be viewed as more or less credible than another. Some chief pilots aren't good on camera.

Each airline's brand will differ. And what will work in one part of the world may differ from what would be effective elsewhere. My research is US travelers only. The reactions and attitudes of U.S. travelers are not necessarily exportable to other countries, because opinions naturally differ. It's managing a thousand shades of gray: depending on who the customer is, what an airline’s own brand and reputation is. Do I think that an airline can sell against the MAX? I think they have to be very careful in how they do it.

What are the issues for an airline that might want to emphasize that they aren’t buying any 737 MAXs?

No non-MAX airline can say, “Hey, we fly with safer planes.” It's very dangerous. When I worked for TWA, we were in the tail end of promoting that we had L-1011s and 747s in our fleets, and had just added the 767. We didn't say we have the L-1011 and not the DC-10. We simply pointed out that we had the L-1011. Even in 1984, when I went to work for TWA, there was still a little concern and “negative halo affect” about the DC-10. It was waning, but it was still out there. Fast forward to a few years ago when the DC-10 was retired from passenger service. There were lots of people crying about the DC-10 going away, saying it was the best airplane ever. I have no doubt that that will be the case for the MAX in the future – if Boeing can fix its problem and if the MAX goes on to serve its customers well.

Why do you think it’s necessary that Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chairman and CEO since 2015, resign? How quickly should his exit happen?

The saying “the buck stops here” applies to the leader of every organization, whether that person is President of the United States, owner of a small business, or the CEO of a major enterprise. As Boeing’s Chairman, CEO, and president, the ultimate responsibility for the 737 MAX’s problems rests with Mr. Muilenberg. I respect his 34 year career at Boeing and the many successful projects he has overseen during his time there. I also genuinely believe he wants to see the 737 MAX safely returned to the skies and be a successful product for Boeing and its airline customers. None of this, however, can obscure the fact that Mr. Muilenberg has been running Boeing as it brought an aircraft to make with extensive problems — problems that were so bad they resulted in two crashes that killed 346 people. Mr. Muilenberg was CEO when the decision was made at Boeing to not inform the FAA for 13 months about known safety problems with the MAX’s flight control software system. Mr. Muilenberg has to accept his responsibility for his actions. Stepping down is the dignified and appropriate step for him to take.

As for when, I would suggest it take place after the MAX has been re-certified by the FAA and has resumed service in the US. Mr. Muilenberg is certainly not the only Boeing executive who should leave; it would be appropriate for others who had more direct involvement with the 737 MAX’s development to also leave. Boeing’s employees deserve fresh, inspiring, and trustworthy leadership who will never knowingly put profit ahead of safety, and who will motivate them to continue to design and build some of the world's best commercial aircraft.