What the 737 MAX’s return to the sky will imply for passengers

(CNN) – Would you fly the Boeing 737 MAX? That question will become all too real for passengers in the near future when the aircraft, which has been on the ground for around 600 days, is put back into service.

The 737 MAX was discontinued in March 2019 after two crashes in five months that killed 346 people.

All indications now indicate that following changes by the regulatory authorities, the aircraft has been certified for an early return to service in the USA.

Steve Dickson, US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator, said earlier this week that the review of the proposed design changes “could be completed in the coming days,” and the regulatory process is expected to be relatively straightforward from there.

2020 is a year where the unprecedented is the new normal, and of course the current state of Washington, DC is no exception. But even if the FAA is sticking to that timeline, it’s no exaggeration to say that aviation doesn’t have a roadmap to convince passengers that the latest generation of the world’s best-selling aircraft, the Boeing 737, is safe.

Some airlines, including American Airlines, are already starting to sell tickets on the MAX (but in this case on a single daily round trip).

“Our customers can easily tell if they are traveling on a 737 MAX even if their flight schedules change,” said Curtis Blessing, spokesman for American Airlines. “The aircraft type is visible via the booking path. If the flight plans change, a notification is given.”

United Airlines promises passengers that they can rebook if they do not want to fly with the MAX.

Southwest Airlines, which had the largest MAX fleet in the U.S. prior to landing, says it will take longer, suggesting three to four months from legal grounding to recommissioning.

Mike Van de Ven, Southwest’s chief operating officer, said in an industry call for awards in October, “We have significant operational experience with the aircraft. It is our most affordable aircraft. It is our most reliable aircraft. It is our best.” environmentally friendly aircraft, and it is our most comfortable aircraft. We really look forward to flying it again. “

However, the arguments that might reassure investors are unlikely to convince passengers.

A Boeing 737 MAX piloted by FAA CEO Steve Dickson takes off from Seattle during a test flight on September 30th.

Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

Keeping passengers comfortable is a big job

Basically, part of the problem with convincing passengers that the MAX is safe is that there isn’t a playbook for it and another part is that the aviation and commercial aviation industries don’t like to talk about safety.

There is a significant proportion of the population who already have some form of fear of flying and they do not want to increase that number.

There is also a risk that a safety campaign will heighten passengers’ fears: if Boeing and the airlines that operate the 737 MAX take a PR spree – which is costly and the greatest recession of all time is not the time to do it – – You risk reminding people of the problems with the airplane or bringing them to the attention of people who didn’t see the news two years ago.

“Boeing has to worry about the unintended consequences of security discussions,” said Addison Schonland, partner at the US-based aviation analysis company AirInsight Group.

“It’s a tricky thing because you want passengers to basically forget they are on a MAX. How can Boeing do this seamlessly? When Americans talk about educating their customers, it helps, but again, it can be unintended.” Give consequences. Or are you just going to tough it out and claim the MAX is the most tested aircraft Boeing has ever delivered? “Southwest Airlines 737 MAX aircraft parked in California March 2019.

Southwest Airlines 737 MAX aircraft parked in California March 2019.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Indeed, for some time now, airlines have been developing a strategy on how to balance the MAX aircraft that they have a need for as some (or even many) passengers do not want to fly them.

Given that the Covid-19 crisis has eased pressure on existing fleets, there is some leeway for airlines not to be the first engine, but at some point an airline has to be the first to put the MAX back in Brings air.

And that will come with unprecedented interest from regulators, the media and passengers.

We live in the 2020s when almost everyone who flies has a cell phone to record what’s happening and it only takes one passenger to go viral while sobbing fearfully to step on a 737 MAX, there an overworked gate agent refuses or unable to reschedule them create a serious image problem – let alone when a 737 MAX has to reroute or return to its departure airport for the first time because of a relatively routine problem.

Aside from implementing the PR blitz, you can expect most airlines to put in place a policy (open or quiet) that allows passengers who don’t want to fly on a 737 MAX to change their ticket at no extra charge.

When is AirInsight’s Schonland ready for a 737 MAX?

“Not for a while is my answer. Maybe wait and see how it goes. I’m pretty sure the redesigned MAX will be a better aircraft in terms of systems and safety,” he says.

“But even so,” concludes Schonland, “he’s in no hurry to try.”

A Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is pictured on the company's production line in Renton, Washington, March 2019.

A Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is pictured on the company’s production line in Renton, Washington, March 2019.

Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

Boeing has another problem: the rest of the world

It is crucial that Boeing does not only have to convince Americans or US regulators.

After bloody revelations in investigations into Boeing, its regulator, the FAA, and the relationship between them – including the US House Transportation Committee report stating that “Boeing failed to design and develop the MAX and the FAA failed its oversight of Boeing and its certification of the aircraft “- International aviation safety authorities insist on making their own decisions.

In addition to the key decisions made by the European aviation authority EASA and the Chinese CAAC, certification by smaller independent regulators in key countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates will be of crucial importance.

There is also a bigger problem with China for Boeing and the USA: The US exporter Boeing plays an important role in the increasingly complicated political and economic relations between the USA and China.

In addition to the critical role of CAAC in safety certification, China’s interest is in developing its own commercial aircraft programs that would aid in-depth analysis of MAX systems. And of course Boeing is a very useful lever against this or the next White House.

Boeing has an even more daunting problem, however: convincing passengers that the 737 MAX’s fundamental shortcomings have been addressed and addressed, rather than making them the 347th person to die on board those aircraft.

In the place of the manufacturer, AirInsight’s Schonland said, the immediate priorities of the Boeing 737 MAX program should be “FAA certification, aircraft upgrade to certification requirements, and deliveries – in that order.”

Part of the piece of the puzzle, however, is airline demand, which is already at historic lows with Covid-19 and which will be even lower for an aircraft that has been the subject of damned investigation for two years and for many experts and passengers, don’t trust it, to be sure.

And it will be a brave airline that wants to be the first to take over the flak for the rest of the industry to get the MAX back up and running.

John Walton is an international transportation and aviation journalist based in France specializing in airlines, commercial aircraft and the passenger experience.

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