Since Boeing’s 737 Max jet was grounded in March, after two crashes killed 346 people, a question has loomed for the company: Would passengers be too scared to fly on the plane once it returned to the air?
It turns out that even as Boeing continues to work on technical fixes to the plane that are needed for regulatory approval, it has repeatedly surveyed thousands of passengers around the world to try to find out the answer. The latest results, from this month, found that 40 per cent of regular flyers said they would be unwilling to fly on the Max.
So, in a series of conference calls with airlines and in 40 pages of accompanying presentation materials that were reviewed by The New York Times, Boeing laid out strategies for airlines to help win back the public’s trust and convince travellers that the company’s most popular plane is safe.
For instance, if a traveller doesn’t want to fly after buying a ticket, getting to the airport gate or even after boarding the plane, Boeing says that the airline could offer to rebook a flight, have flight attendants or pilots talk to the concerned passenger or hand out 3-by-5 inch information cards detailing why the Max is safe.
“Every interaction with an anxious passenger, whether face-to-face or online, is an opportunity to demonstrate our care and concern,” the presentation said. “This is as simple as recognition of a passenger’s state of mind. Research shows that emotions drive decision-making, so a human connection will be more effective than rational appeals.”
In the most extreme cases, Boeing suggests using “techniques related to an inflight medical emergency to de-escalate.”
The calls and documents underscore the enormous challenges Boeing faces in the coming months as it tries to restore its reputation. The Max remains grounded, and there is no timetable for when regulators will deem it safe to return to the air. In just the last week and a half, Boeing fired its chief executive and said it would temporarily shut down the factory that makes the Max.
Boeing has queried thousands of travellers around the globe four times since May, and found that the skepticism surrounding the Max had improved only marginally. Among U.S. travellers, just 52 per cent said they would be willing to fly on the plane, according to the survey.
“Overall awareness of issues surrounding the 737 Max remains very high in all countries,” Boeing wrote.
The conference calls, which lasted about 30 minutes each and were held over three days last week, are part of Boeing’s attempts to win back the trust of airlines, which have lost billions of dollars and had to cancel thousands of flights because of the Max grounding. The effort was led by Bernard Choi, a member of the company’s communications team.
Some American airline executives bristled at the presentation and materials, according to four people familiar with the matter, believing that Boeing has lost credibility and that the company’s involvement would only hurt their efforts to win back the trust of passengers. But dozens of airlines around the world have ordered the Max, and many of them, especially the smaller ones, could find the materials helpful.
“We routinely engage with our airline customers’ communications teams to seek their feedback and brief them on our latest plans,” Gordon Johndroe, a Boeing spokesman, said in a statement on Monday. “Each airline is different in their needs, so we provide a wide range of documents and assistance that they can choose to use or tailor as they see fit.”
Boeing has faltered badly in its public response to the crashes. The ousted chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg, who was fired Monday, repeatedly made overly-optimistic projections about when the Max might return to service, upsetting regulators and airlines. He drew the ire of lawmakers at congressional hearings, where the families of crash victims winced at his name. The hiring of the top crisis communications firms Sard Verbinnen and Edelman did little to improve the company’s reputation.
On Monday, Boeing said that Niel Golightly, the chief communications officer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and a former Navy fighter pilot, would become its head of communications next year.
During its presentation to airlines, the company also distributed a set of infographics, reference cards, videos and frequently asked questions.
One of the videos was an animated explanation of the new software on the Max, called MCAS, which was intended to make the plane handle more predictably but played a role in both accidents. In the video, watermarked “Draft – Advanced Copy, Pending Certification,” a narrator explains that in the accidents, MCAS activated repeatedly after a sensor on the plane’s fuselage malfunctioned, causing the airplane to crash. The video goes on to explain the changes Boeing is making to MCAS.
“Lives depend on the work that we do,” Boeing’s chief commercial pilot, Jim Webb, says in another video. “We know that when you step on board, you place your trust in us.”
At times, the material is startlingly self-critical. In a draft memo Boeing prepared for airlines to share with employees such as flight attendants, the company suggests that airlines say: “Boeing understands that it fell short and let us down, as well as the flying public, and it has committed to continuous improvement and learning.”
In another memo, Boeing says airlines could tell their pilots this: “We have told our Boeing partners that they did not communicate enough about MCAS – and they have heard us. Going forward, they are committed to doing a better job communicating with us.”
Boeing did not fully inform pilots about how MCAS functioned until after the first accident, off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018.
The materials also show that Boeing would try to push back on the narrative that the Max was developed under intense deadline pressure as the company faced heated competition from its European rival, Airbus.
In a draft of a frequently-asked-questions document intended to help airlines communicate with their employees, Boeing included the question, “Is it true that the 737 Max was rushed into service?”
Boeing suggests the airlines answer this way: “No. Over a six-year period, Boeing worked through a disciplined methodical development process that culminated with a robust test program that validated the airplane’s safety and performance.”
In a section of the presentation focused on social media and marketing, the company said it planned to “amplify any positive stories reported,” and that it intended to buy ads to promote the plane’s return to service. It said a company website dedicated to updates on the Max was being designed with “improved usability” and “stickiness” to “encourage more time on site and repeat visits,” phrases commonly used in the communications business.
The presentation said Boeing’s “digital and media team” would be “monitoring social conversations around the clock.”
The company also indicated that it was preparing responses in the event that a Max encountered difficulty after service was restarted, which could happen given that more than 500 are already built and about 5,000 have been ordered. The situations that Boeing was preparing for included engine failures and smoke in the cabin and “significant” events on flights by Lion Air or Ethiopian Airlines, which operated the two planes that crashed.
In the presentation, Boeing promoted its ability to get industry analysts and some pilots to make encouraging public statements about the company. It identified dozens of aerospace trade shows in 2020 at which it planned to make its case. And it pledged to work with airlines during early flights to bolster consumer confidence, including offering to have Boeing executives onboard.
“We know we have work to do to restore confidence in Boeing and the Max,” Johndroe said Monday. “We are working closely with airlines, their pilots and flight attendants to make sure they have the information they need to provide to the travelling public to reassure them that once the certification process is complete, the Max will be one of the safest airplanes flying today.”