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Will you fly on a Boeing 737 Max?

Will you fly on a Boeing 737 Max?

Booking flights for summer travel is in high gear so here’s a question: Will you fly on a Boeing 737 Max, assuming its anti-stall problem gets fixed to the satisfaction of the FAA? For a couple reasons, I don’t think I will; but more importantly, I question whether the 737 Max will ever fly again.

For those who don’t know the backstory, the 737 Max is the latest iteration of Boeing’s 737 aircraft which first started flying in the late 1960s. Its stabilization system, and perhaps a flawed iterative design, have been blamed for two crashes that killed 346 people. The planes have been grounded until further notice, and American Airlines, for example, has cancelled all 737 Max flights through August 19. (If you are looking for more details about the system/design issue, I found this article interesting, Is the Boeing 737 Max Worth Saving? )

When planes crash, we eventually learn what happened (black boxes and the like), and in most instances the crash is caused by something specific that has little to do with the plane itself. Birds fly into engines as happened during the Miracle on the Hudson, improperly stowed hazardous materials catch fire and a Valuejet plane plummets into the oblivion of the Everglades, or some form of human error leads to a catastrophe. Most of the time, it’s weather, terrorism or pilot error – but not a flaw with the plane itself. And even in the case of TWA flight 800 which exploded in 1996 after faulty wiring ignited the plane’s fuel, that was a problem on one aircraft that wasn’t detected on the whole fleet of then 747s.

Boeing’s problem impacts 344 planes operating around the world, and the issue affects all the planes due to the overall design and the systems that keep them in the air. When planes fall out of the sky because of a flawed design or a botched system, consumers will rightfully panic and it’s hard to imagine the flying public embracing the 737 Max, even if it gets the thumbs up from the FAA.

Fear of flying to the Max

Let’s talk about the fear of flying. While only about 6.5% of people have a deep fear of flying, a larger percentage have anxiety about flying. My wife, for one, hates flying, and her anxiety creeps into my travel plans, too. She hates prop planes, and because of this, I only fly on jets, even when she’s not flying with me. She will never fly on a 737 Max no matter what the FAA says, and she doesn’t want me to either. Our kids (her babies)? Forget it. People with any level of flying anxiety will say, don’t book me on a 737 Max, period.

Usual flying tricks won’t work

When airlines have brand and image problems, they have a couple go-to solutions which won’t work for Boeing. The first is the monopoly factor. We don’t have many choices when we fly, so even if we are not fans of an airline, we may still choose it because it flies where we want to go, at the most convenient times and at fares we can stomach. The second is pricing. Two years ago, I had a horrible experience on Delta. See Two Seats Away From Not Hating Delta Airlines. I was incredibly upset with Delta and its ineptitude, but a year later, I flew with them again. When I was booking, Delta was cheaper and had better options, so I overcame my anger. These tricks won’t work for Boeing because travelers can single-out this plane when booking, and short of making flights free, I don’t think flyers will risk it.

You can’t rebrand it

Valuejet took a major reputational hit after its crash in 1996 and eventually took the AirTran name from a smaller airline it acquired. The airline survived for a few more years before being purchased by Southwest. Boeing can’t rebrand the 737 Max. The planes are built. They are spread around the world.  You can’t slap a new name on them and expect the public to believe that this will make them safer.

Travelers have no brand loyalty for Boeing

Today’s travelers have no reason to support Boeing. When we fly, we choose the airline and a cheap fare, and we don’t care about the brand of plane. Our loyalty, if it even exists, is to the airline. While it may be a large employer and a great corporate citizen (is it?), Boeing hasn’t given travelers any reason to stand behind it. Frankly, I think this is the biggest issue, and the biggest PR lesson. Boeing has done very little to make consumers care about its brand, so now when it needs the support of the general public, it has little to draw upon.

More turbulence ahead

This story isn’t going away, and it has major implications for Boeing and its more than 153,000 employees. The 737 Max costs more than $120 million, so the 344 sitting on the ground are worth more than $41 billion by my journalism school math. If they never fly again, that likely sends Boeing on a turbulent ride to bankruptcy.

It all comes down to the travelers. See survey below to answer: Will you fly on a Boeing 737 Max?


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