SEATTLE — Jen Collet considers herself a savvy flyer.
As a former flight attendant, the wife of a corporate pilot and daughter of an airline mechanic, the self-described “snowbird” said she’s long paid attention to the type of aircraft she’s flying on during her frequent trips to Arizona and elsewhere.
But as Collet waited recently near the Southwest Airlines ticketing terminal at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, she disclosed a secret that might not sit well with her Mukilteo neighbors: She plans to avoid Boeing’s 737 MAX once it’s cleared to fly again.
“I hate to say it because my street is full of Boeing employees,” said Collet, 43. “But I probably won’t fly on the MAX. If they’re doing all these extra checks, I would think it should be safe. But before I fly, I’ll probably check the airplane, and I definitely would avoid it.”
The latest version of Boeing’s bestselling workhorse faces a potential consumer backlash as its return to flight looms closer after being grounded globally since March following two crashes that killed 346 people.
The fate of the MAX — along with Boeing’s reputation — largely depends on winning over passengers like Collet. While the company prepares to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and foreign regulators for its fixes to the plane’s suspect flight-control system, it also has been trying to win the flying public’s approval.
Boeing has mounted a fervent public relations campaign in recent months, seeking to appease lingering concerns about its beleaguered twin-engine jet that brings in up to 40 percent of its profits. It hired PR heavyweight Edelman to craft a communications strategy, took out full-page newspaper ads and distributed video testimonials by company employees.
After the first crash, Boeing’s public response largely amounted to defending the design of the MAX’s flight control system, known as MCAS, that repeatedly had pushed the jet’s nose down. The company dug in further following the second crash, insisting the design was safe, but offering a software update and training procedures to help pilots.
Such initial “poor messaging” only served to breed more public distrust and fear, said Irv Schenkler, a clinical professor of management communications at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Boeing’s “the less said, the better” approach created a vacuum that was ultimately filled by critical news reports that exposed deeper safety concerns and contradicted the company’s statements, Schenkler said.
“Now, [Boeing is] hoping to ‘hold the line’ with industrial customers and governments while also trying to put their best face forward via executive apologies using video and apologies in print, as well as personally, by the CEO in testimony before Congress,” Schenkler said. “To some extent, it’s a matter of putting lipstick on a pig — it’s still a pig.”
Public perception about the MAX and Boeing’s trustworthiness seemed to calcify within weeks after the MAX’s grounding. A market research survey of 2,000 passengers in May found 72 percent of leisure travelers correctly identified the MAX as the grounded jet.
“That was a big surprise to us,” Henry Harteveldt, president of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research that conducted the survey, said last month. “Not every airline passenger is a frequent flyer who knows the type of plane he or she is flying on.”
For Boeing, all roads to winning back consumer confidence must go through transparency, several experts agreed. Time will also help, they said.
“Memories recede and new problems arise,” Schenkler said. “In a year from now, this may seem a distant concern — unless another MAX-737 disaster scorches the headlines.”
Johnson & Johnson overcame the Tylenol cyanide poisonings in the Chicago area in 1982 that left seven people dead with an aggressive response that included a recall and introduction of tamper-resistant packaging. The response, which helped reform safety protocols throughout the pharmaceutical industry, won wide praise.
When Jack in the Box faced crisis in 1993, after E. coli-tainted hamburgers killed four children and sickened hundreds of other customers, the fast-food chain’s initial reaction was “denial and fight,” recalled Bill Marler, a Seattle trial lawyer for more than 30 years who has represented victims of prominent food safety catastrophes worldwide.
“They were letting the insurance company and their lawyers sort of run things,” said Marler, who represented hundreds of victims and their families in lawsuits against the chain. “But within 60 days of the outbreak, they fired their lawyers and changed everything.”
The new strategy focused on transparency, with the company owning its failures and offering to pay victims’ medical bills with no strings attached, Marler said. Jack in the Box hired a prominent food safety expert, giving him complete authority to implement new food handling and cooking protocols that have since been adopted throughout the fast food industry.
Juice-maker Odwalla also responded swiftly when, in 1996, its unpasteurized apple juices spawned an E. coli outbreak that killed a 16-month old girl and sickened 66 other people in Washington. The company voluntarily recalled juices from thousands of stores and later introduced new safety protocols, including flash pasteurization. It eventually pleaded guilty to 16 criminal counts and received the court’s permission to donate part of its $1.5 million fine to food safety research.
Boeing, after initial floundering, has set up a $50 million compensation fund for victims’ families, though experts say the company and its insurers eventually may shell out as much as $3 billion. It also announced an internal restructuring that emphasizes safety and, following a congressional grilling, CEO Dennis Muilenburg this month offered to forgo his 2019 bonuses.
But it also took Muilenburg a full year after the first crash before he last month met personally with family members of crash victims, and then, only when the relatives already planned to convene in Washington, D.C., to watch Boeing’s brass testify before two congressional committees.
“I think how Boeing has handled the 737 MAX crisis will become a case study,” Harteveldt said. “They’re starting to get better, but still not as good as they could be.”