Last week two spectacular events happened with the same model aircraft built by the Boeing Company. A 737-500 crashed in Indonesia and after being grounded for nearly two years, the Boeing 737 Max is once again flying commercial passengers in the US. An American Airlines flight took off from Miami International Airport on its way to LaGuardia Airport in New York.
True that the plane that crashed was an earlier model built back in the 1980’s and the MAX Is the super modern version of that aircraft. But will the assurances that the MAX is now safe convince passengers to return and will consumers paint the 737-500 with a broad brush not differentiating between the models? In one of my earlier Business Monitor columns I addressed the issue of consumer confidence after the two max crashes and its grounding. Has anything changed? Will the 737 issue somehow be swallowed up by the overall consumer reluctance to fly during the Covid pandemic?
One of the greatest challenges in marketing is to restore consumer confidence after a cataclysmic event that can destroy a brand overnight. The rollout of the 737-500 MAX was done with a great deal of fanfare raising expectation amongst the flying public. But then on October 29, 2018: Lion Air Flight 610, on a flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Pangkal Pinang, Indonesia, crashed into the sea 13 minutes after takeoff, with 189 people on board the aircraft: 181 passengers (178 adults and three children), as well as six cabin crew and two pilots. All on board died. Despite the crash, the MAX was allowed to continue flying.
Less than six months later on March 10, 2019: 302 on a flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six-minutes after takeoff; all 157 people aboard (149 passengers and 8 crew members) died. The plane was only four months old at the time of the accident. In response, numerous aviation authorities around the world grounded the 737 MAX series, and many airlines followed suit on a voluntary basis. On March 13, 2019, the FAA became the last authority to ground the aircraft, reversing its previous stance that the MAX was safe to fly.
Redemption came in November when the FAA after two years of reviewing the fix of the computer flaw that forced the planes down without allowing for pilot intervention finally cleared the plane for flying again. American Airlines, which had the first flight, had its President Robert Isom on board plus there were as many as 100 other passengers. American plans to use the 737 Max for daily flights between Miami and New York, but will let passengers concerned about flying on a 737 Max rebook their flight to avoid the plane. The 737 Max has been back in service in Brazil since earlier this month. Aviation safety agencies in Canada and the European Union are conducting their own reviews of the plane before flights resume in those regions.
Boeing spent the better part of the two years it was fixing the problem taking out full page ads assuring the public that the plane would return and that it will be totally safe. In the past passengers have returned to airlines despite a disaster believing that the crash was due to some human or mechanical error. There was always the belief that there is a sincere effort by the FAA, plane manufacturers and others to make sure that the plane would now be safe. But there is also a long list of airlines that were forced to fold after a disaster or more realistically after a string of disasters. The MAX headed in that direction but somehow it is flying again.
One of the major complaints of aviation experts was that pilots were not adequately trained to fly the MAX and certainly were prepared for how to deal with the new technology as the two crashes clearly proved. As it stands, the F.A.A. must still approve pilot training procedures for the U.S. airlines flying the Max, which presumably it did for American before it took off from Miami.
The crash last week of a 737-500 in Indonesia did not help matters. There will surely be those who wonder whether the entire model has flaws and not just the recent technology installed in the MAX. The Sriwijaya Air jet crashed into the Java Sea minutes after it took off from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, on Jan. 9. It was carrying 62 people, including 10 children, on a domestic flight to Pontianak, a city on Indonesia’s Borneo island.
Obviously, the first step for investigators is to recover the black box and se if they can find out why the plane crashed. In light of the fact that this too was a Boeing 737-500 will mean that the flying public will be anxious to hear those findings as soon as possible. They will also be carefully watching the performance of the MAX and even the slightest trouble will cause the public to distance itself from flying the plane.
The airlines will hope that consumers will quickly return to flying the plane. Many are counting on the fact that so many passengers do not even check out the model plane they fly. We all know people for whom a plane is a plane. Add this to people who fly with points and people who must met a certain schedule and the airlines have at least most of the seats of filled. The return of the skeptical flyers would spell success.
If you look at it from Boeing’s view nothing short of success is acceptable. These past two years have been horrific for the company, beginning with the MAX fiasco and continuing with the worldwide pandemic and the virtual suspension of flying by the public. It lost billions in the process including the cancellation of thousands of orders for the MAX. It needs to have a stellar recovery to return to its position of strength. It has a big job ahead of it to restore confidence not only in the flying public, but by the airlines, and aviation authorities all over the world. Marketing will solve only part of the dilemma. It needs solid performances by all of its jets and certainly its 737-500 series, even those built prior to the MAX.
The flying public can only sit on the sidelines and hope Boeing succeeds. This is one case where everyone’s interest is really in the same place.