The two crashes of the 737 MAX resulted in 346 fatalities and a grounding of the aircraft. The last time an aircraft was grounded was the Boeing 787, but that was precautionary and no fatalities resulted from problems with the aircraft. The grounding of the DC-10 in 1979 entailed fatalities, but that we before the era of social media.
In 1979, the Internet and social media were non-existent. The IBM PC wasn’t introduced until 1981, so the reputation of the aircraft was based on news stories and television. Today, news is primarily delivered on-line, with television news ratings and newspaper subscriptions both in decline. Handling the outcome of a crash will be very different for Boeing in this era of social media.
Both airlines and consumers were concerned about the safety of the DC-10 in the early 1980s, and by 1983, four years later, Douglas announced it would cease building the aircraft due to a lack of demand, and the last DC-10 was delivered in 1989. Could the same thing happen to the 737MAX, and could Boeing be forced to accelerate its Future Small Aircraft program because of consumer backlash on the Internet?
The DC-10 had been in service for eight years when the American Airlines accident occurred that grounded the aircraft. But there were a number of major fatal accidents with the DC-10, in which 32 hull loss accidents with 1,261 fatalities. Had the DC-10 been flying today, we believe its demise, due to social media, may have come more quickly. Nonetheless, the aircraft ended up being quite reliable once several issues were fixed, and remained in airline operations until 2014.
The MAX8 has the unusual element of two fatal crashes early on in the program. While the cause of the crashes has now been identified as a software system meant to improve safety that was inadequately reviewed in the aircraft’s certification process, the initial damage to the reputation of the aircraft has occurred. News reports indicate that airline booking sites are receiving more questions about whether flights operate with a MAX aircraft, even though all are now grounded, and there appears to be public concern about the safety of the aircraft.
Boeing has been through difficult aircraft introductions before. The Boeing 727 had unique flying characteristics that resulted in four crashes until pilots were trained on how the aircraft flew. But that was in the 1960s, when newspapers, television, and radio were the major sources of information.
Today, Boeing will need to rebuild the reputation of the 737 MAX in an era of social media, and convince the flying public that the MAX is a safe aircraft. That will be a difficult task given all of the information that is readily accessible about the MCAS system and how pilots were unable to gain control of the aircraft from a computer system.
Passengers are concerned about being on a 737 MAX today. Southwest Airlines, whose safety card is identical for the 737-800 and 737 MAX8 aircraft, now has crews announcing to passengers that they are NOT flying a MAX, but a -800. But when the MAX returns, is it likely that crew will continue to announce the aircraft type? If they did, would passengers want to get off the airplane out of fear?
One possibility is to drop the name MAX, and simply utilize the 737-8 designator for the MAX8, and so forth for the other variants. This would match the 747 and 787 designators and make it more consistent with their product line. It would also take the stigma of the MAX brand off of the aircraft, enabling a “fresh start” from a marketing perspective. The word MAX has suddenly become MIN in the eyes of the traveling public.
Winning back the public will be a tough task, particularly in an era when the general public has lost faith in traditional institutions, including the news media and governments. Boeing itself has lost credibility, and while it has been slightly more forthcoming than usual, the company remains somewhat arrogant and will need independent industry experts and pundits to validate the safety of the MAX. The FAA, who share responsibility, are unfortunately in the same situation as Boeing, having been late in grounding the aircraft and appearing to be biased in favor of Boeing.
Getting industry experts to agree won’t be easy, nor will getting the aircraft back in service.
Many in the industry will be pushing for additional pilot training in simulators to react to an MCAS emergency, which is an expensive process that neither Boeing or their airline customers want to undertake. A goal in the MAX was to have the same type rating for pilots as the 737NG, with minimal transition training. Not describing MCAS in detail for pilot transition training turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Others will be pushing for the software to be completely vetted, including a detailed review of thousands of lines of computer code by experts. While there is a law of diminishing returns, at least changes in input data and testing of every decision possibility in the software should be performed, both on the ground and in flight. Engineering analysis on the forces required to properly trim the aircraft manually will also need to be performed, with appropriate MCAS cut outs to enable the electric trim to function at the pilots command.
Once all of these things are done, Boeing could potentially get industry experts to state that they would have no problems flying on the aircraft. An endorsement from somebody like Captain Sullenberger, of miracle on the Hudson fame, would be beneficial. An endorsement from the pilot’s unions, mechanics unions, airline CEOs, the FAA, EASA, Transport Canada and CAAC would be helpful in trying to erase the stigma of the aircraft.
But in a world of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media, messages can spread quickly and be either positive or negative. Boeing needs to have a way to push the right information to potentially frightened customers. Unfortunately, their public relations folks aren’t that friendly or forthcoming, even with established industry commentators like AirInsight. They have a tough road ahead of them.