Boeing Co.'s 737 MAX plane could return to service this summer, yet convincing passengers the plane is safe will be one of the aviation industry's toughest consumer-relations challenges in decades.
The aircraft has been grounded world-wide since March after two MAX jets crashed within five months of each other. The crashes, and what some carriers and pilots have described as Boeing's lack of transparency in their aftermath, have undermined confidence in the plane maker.
Industry officials expect U.S. regulators may lift the flying ban for the MAX in June, but it increasingly looks like late summer before the planes start flying passengers again. Lance White, a 39-year-old radiologist who flies a few times a year, says he has no plans to board the jets once they do.
“I just don't know there's anything Boeing could do to rein still my confidence in this plane,” Mr. White said. The St. Louis resident said he would want to see the jet fly safely for at least five years before he considered boarding one.
Getting the MAX back in the air is crucial to Boeing's future. As its best-selling model, the jet was expected to contribute 40% of Boeing's sales and profits in coming years, analysts say. Airlines that have the craft in their fleets, meanwhile, face steep financial costs and have canceled flights or shuffled planes to avoid stranding passengers.
Several have culled the MAX from schedules well into summer, typically the busiest time of year for travel, but they still expect eventually to fly and use those planes. Some travelers are more concerned about schedule, convenience and price than the type of aircraft they will be flying. Still, the return of the MAX to the skies is likely to draw heightened attention.
Boeing executives are working on a multipronged consumer offensive, potentially including enlisting celebrities to endorse the plane. Airline executives also are likely to board the MAX's first flights back to service in order to convey confidence.
When Boeing faced a similar return-to-flight situation in 2013, after the world-wide grounding of its 787 Dreamliners over battery fires, it filled flights with its own executives and airline chiefs. But the industry's traditional playbook for dealing with safety issues might not suffice because the MAX situation is unique, aviation analysts and marketing experts say.
“You can't brand your way out of a problem like this,” said Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at Landor, a brand consulting firm. MAX crashes in Indonesia in October and Ethiopia in March took 346 lives.
Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration are working toward a fix to the MAX flight-control software implicated in both crashes. The Justice Department, Congress and other federal investigators are looking at whether Boeing provided incomplete or misleading information to regulators in its push to get the plane certified initially, and whether it acted with sufficient urgency to address design issues.
Boeing has said that the MAX was certified in accordance with the same FAA requirements and processes as all its previous new models. The company is trying to shore up support across the industry. It invited pilots to try the proposed changes on simulators and has intensified efforts to brief them on the MAX. It has held brainstorming sessions with airlines and has more meetings lined up around the world.
Southwest Airlines Co., American Airlines Group Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and other carriers say they will fly the plane again only once they are sure it is safe and pilots are trained. Still, some airline executives question whether trust in Boeing has eroded to the point where its efforts to reach fliers directly, such as through ad campaigns, will be ineffective. U.S. airlines said they will craft their own marketing plans and won't rely solely on Boeing's outreach to the public.
A Boeing spokesman said airlines are looking at various solutions, and some may also be interested in advertising and celebrity endorsements. Boeing also is reaching out to pilots, crew, global regulators and fliers to restore confidence in the plane and trust in the company.
Travelers may be more alarmed than many on Wall Street are expecting, according to Barclays PLC analysts, who found that 44% of 1,756 people surveyed said they would wait at least a year to board a MAX. More than half of the respondents said that all things being equal, they would opt to fly on another plane. At least one internal industry survey shows similar levels of concern among frequent fliers.
The plane maker is reaching out to pilots, regulators and fliers to restore confidence.
Passengers including Mr. White, the radiologist, said they have gotten into the habit of checking the model of a plane before they fly. Others, like Tristan Harward, a 34-year-old software engineer in Boston, expressed concerns about the plane's design. “A software patch can fix a specific problem, but it can't fix the systems and processes that created the whole aircraft,” Mr. Harward said.
Airlines are hoping people's anxieties will dissipate once the MAX is airborne again. Customer boycotts of airlines often don't last long because travel alternatives are limited. Southwest surveys have shown that some customers will be reluctant to fly a MAX but that the issue should be short-lived. United said public confidence will be driven by the conclusions of independent regulators, who are due to meet later this month in Dallas.
David Stevens, an event planner who flies roughly every other week and considered canceling flights using MAX jets before they were grounded, said Boeing's comments have since put his fears to rest. “I honestly feel like this was taken seriously,” he said.
Boeing and airline officials say they believe passengers will take their cues from pilots. American has made pilots available to customers to help answer questions. Southwest said it has taken a similar approach.
BY ALISON SIDER AND ROBERTWALL