- Airlines are trying to figure out how to deal with passengers who say they don’t want to fly in a Boeing 737 Max when the plane returns to service after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.
- Some airlines said they would let passengers switch to other planes but were still debating how to tell them what plane they are scheduled to fly on. Others said they were still working on their overall plan to deal with concerned passengers.
- Airlines have choices about whether to let passengers rebook flights on 737 Max planes and when and how to tell them their plane type – and different methods could cause different types of chaos for the airlines.
- Airlines are expressing continued confidence in the plane, and Boeing says it will be one of the safest planes ever to fly when it returns.
- Crisis-communications experts, however, said the airlines needed to be transparent with passengers to avoid “chaos” when the plane returns to service.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Airlines are scrambling to work out how best to let their passengers know they are due to fly on a Boeing 737 Max once the stricken aircraft returns to the skies after more than six months on the ground.
Travellers have expressed fears about flying on the plane – even after updates from Boeing – when it returns after being grounded around the world following two deadly crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 that killed 346 people.
Some airlines have publicly committed to allowing concerned passengers to switch their flights to other planes free of charge when the 737 Max is back in action but have stopped short of saying they will directly alert passengers of the plane model they booked.
Southwest Airlines and United Airlines said they would allow passengers to switch flights, but neither airline has announced a full plan for telling them what type of plane they are on, either when they are deciding on a flight or after they book it.
The Boeing 737 Max has had a troubled existence that culminated in 2 fatal crashes just 5 months apart. Here is the complete timeline of the besieged jetliner, from its birth to the present day.
A Southwest representative told Business Insider that the airline had added the plane type to its app and to the flight-status section of its website “for additional awareness.”
Southwest does not show the plane type on its website before you pay for the flight.
“Nothing else is planned right now,” the airline said. Southwest has 34 Max planes, more than any other airline in the world.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said in May that the airline would be transparent with passengers and allow them to rebook.
“We will make it very transparent that you are on that type of aircraft and if people need any kind of adjustments we will absolutely rebook them in any way shape or form,” Munoz said. United has 14 Max planes in its fleet.
Some airlines haven’t decided how they will tell passengers or whether they will let them rebook flights on the 737 Max
Many airlines that have 737 Max planes or have ordered them for their fleets said they had not yet decided what they will do when the plane returns.
- Norwegian, which has 18 Max planes in its fleet, said that “while the aircraft is still grounded with no clear return to service date, it’s still too early to provide these details.”
- WestJet, which has 13 Max planes, said that it understood that passengers might have concerns and that it was still working out its plan. It said it would “be entirely transparent in communicating which aircraft our guests will be on, making them fully aware of whether they will be on a Max for their flight.”
- Korean Air, which has ordered 30 Max planes, said it had “not made any decision,” as none of its Max planes have been delivered yet.
- Air Canada said it was “developing our return to service plans” but did not provide Business Insider with specifics.
Other airlines said they were waiting to reveal their plans and did not answer questions from Business Insider about whether they would let passengers change flights booked on 737 Max planes.
American Airlines, which has 24 Max planes, said it had “not made any announcement regarding specific rebooking policies once the Max comes back into service.” It did say that the plane type would be listed on its website and mobile app and at the boarding gates – features it already has in place.
FlyDubai, which has 14 Max planes, said that customers can already see the model of their plane when booking flights and that “when the Max is certified to reenter service, we will roll out a full suite of customer communications and we plan to contact passengers and provide transparent updates.”
TUI, which has 15 Max planes, also said it would not discuss any plans until the plane comes back to service.
The 737 Max is unlikely to return to service before the end of this year. Helio Fred Garcia, a crisis-management professor at New York University and Columbia University and the president of the crisis-management firm Logos Consulting, said that how prepared an airline should be to deal with passengers at this stage depends, at least in part, on how many Max planes it has in its fleet.
“If you’ve got thousands of planes and 20 of them are Maxes, you’re not in that bad of shape,” he said. “But if you’re a smaller airline and half of your fleet is Maxes, then you’ve got a different circumstance.”
Airlines have options when it comes to telling or not telling passengers – but they will be aware of the chaos every option could cause
Airlines have several ways they can deal with these passengers, including not emphasising the plane type beyond the normal level of information it gives customers – typically a small listing on the booking website that many don’t pay attention to.
But choosing not to alert customers could result in more problems if they express concerns after they book a flight, particularly if the airline has a policy of letting passengers change their flights.
Flyers still have concerns about the safety of the 737 Max when it returns, despite Boeing’s pledge that it will be one of the safest planes ever to fly after its updates have been scrutinised and tested by regulators.
In a June poll by the investment bank UBS, 41% of Americans said they wouldn’t consider flying on a Max plane until it had been back in service for six months. The plane is unlikely to return before the end of this year at the earliest.
Garcia told Business Insider that “there’s the potential for a lot of chaos where people book their flights and don’t pay attention to the plane type.”
“It is in the airline’s best interest to sort of give people an alert while they book and say, ‘Hey, this is the type,'” he said. “Or they can hope they don’t notice, and then a month before the flight, people might start panicking.”
For airlines that decide to give passengers an additional alert, that could come in a variety of ways – an alert on the website, an email after booking, an email closer to the flight date, or a combination of these.
“My advice to the airlines would be that if you’re doing it sincerely to quell passenger concern, then you need to go out of your way to be as transparent as possible,” Garcia said. “And if they think that they were told one thing but got something else, then they will feel betrayed.”
He also said that airlines had a choice when it comes to tone.
“Airlines sort of have an option between just stating it, like, ‘Here’s your confirmation of your fight. Your flight number is X. Your flight type is a 737 Max,’ or they could make more of an alert,” he said.
Most important, Garcia said, is making the information easy to find. “For communicating to people who are concerned about something, you should put the announcement where they expect to find it,” he said.
“They would expect to find it on the booking website. They would expect to find it on the boarding pass. They would expect to find it on the app. So they may expect to get it in an email,” he said.
Garcia said that since airlines already send a lot of information to customers, it should not be difficult or unpleasant for a customer to receive the plane-type information.
“You’re going to be swarming them in information anyway. They’re going to get a confirmation email. They’re going to get the boarding pass. They’re going to get the notice on the app that it’s time to check in,” he said.
“So wherever the eyeballs are likely to go for information about their flight, that’s where the information about the Max ought to be.”
Airlines are navigating a tricky path when they try to reassure passengers about the plane
Airlines are continually delaying flights involving the plane – some until the start of 2020 – but many are still selling flights on the Max and expressing confidence in the aircraft.
Airlines are losing millions as they deal with cancelled flights and idle planes, making them eager for a quick return.
Many of the airlines that Business Insider spoke with reiterated their confidence in the plane, even as they debated their policies for dealing with concerned passengers.
But experts said that some could be presenting a conflicting and confusing narrative between their confidence in the plane and desire to use it widely and a decision to allow passengers to swap planes.
“What I worry about,” Garcia said, “is they shouldn’t be flying the plane if they aren’t completely confident in the plane’s safety.”
“One of the possible takeaways from saying that ‘the plane is safe, but if you’re not comfortable flying on it, you can find something else’ is that people may not believe it’s all that safe,” he said.
Rupert Younger, the director of Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation, told Business Insider that airlines’ plan to let passengers rebook their flights was a bad idea, as it leaves customers to make their own decision about the safety of the plane.
“I don’t think this is a good idea at all,” he said.
“Passengers don’t really want to analyse or think and worry about the details of which plane is safe or not. They rely on the professional insights of the pilots and crew, whose safety is also equally at risk from a faulty aircraft.
“And once you start to offer passengers choices over aircraft types, where does it stop?”
Do you work at Boeing or the FAA, or are you a pilot? Got a tip or a story to share? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal at +353 86 335 0386 using a non-work phone, or email her at [email protected], or Twitter DM her at @sineadbaker1.
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