Boeing's reputation has been stained by the 737 Max, and it's going to have to fight to convince people the plane is safe

BoeingThe Boeing 737 Max.
  • The 737 Max is the fastest-selling jet in Boeing‘s storied history.
  • Now, its moneymaking airliner has tarnished the company’s reputation with consumers.
  • A poll conducted by Business Insider a week after the Ethiopian Airlines crash showed that 53% of American adults would not want to fly on a Boeing 737 Max even after the FAA clears the aircraft for service.
  • According to travel-industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, Boeing needs to shift from a business-to-business operation toward one that interacts directly with consumers if it wants to allay fears.
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The 737 Max is the fastest-selling jet in Boeing’s storied history. Since 2011, the Chicago-based aviation giant has taken about 5,000 orders for the latest generation of the venerable 737.

The various versions of the Boeing 737 account for 80% of Boeing’s 5,800-plane order backlog.

It’s been five months since the first Boeing 737 Max – Lion Air Flight JT610 – crashed off the coast of Indonesia and a month since Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 went down.

Read more: A timeline of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 shows its pilots fighting desperately to save their doomed Boeing 737 Max jet

The entire 737 Max fleet is grounded as Boeing works to get a fix for the plane’s control software issues certified by regulators.

“The 737 Max grounding and what we are learning from it shows that this is not the typical aeroplane accident we’ve seen in the past and this is not the typical aeroplane grounding we’ve seen recently,” Henry Harteveldt, a longtime travel-industry analyst, said to Business Insider in an interview. “This is a very serious problem for Boeing and a big problem for the airline operators and a problem I don’t think will be easy to fix.”

And it starts with Boeing’s reputation, which, at least in the short term, has been tarnished.

“The 737 Max has stained Boeing’s brand reputation,” he said. “This can’t be denied.”

Boeing 737 Max 8BoeingBoeing needs to reassure the public that its planes are safe.

Harteveldt’s assessment is backed up by polling data.

A poll conducted by Business Insider a week after the Ethiopian crash showed that 53% of American adults would not want to fly on a Boeing 737 Max even after the FAA clears the aircraft for service.

“Boeing was a company that many people, even people who didn’t fly, knew as being one of the best in American business because it had built such reliable products for so many years,” Harteveldt, the founder Atmosphere Research Group, said. “The 737 itself had become a workhorse for airlines around the world.”

Now, Boeing needs to reassure the public that its planes are safe.

And that’s especially the case after Ethiopia’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau released its preliminary crash report last week. The AIB’s initial findings present data from the crashed plane’s flight-data recorder, which shows that faulty readings from a malfunctioning angle-of-attack sensor triggered the 737 Max’s manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system that is designed to automatically push the nose of the plane downward.

Boeing confirmed that the AOA sensor on the Ethiopian plane triggered MCAS just as it had done on Lion Air Flight JT610, which crashed on October 28 off the coast of Indonesia.

Read more: Boeing and Ethiopian investigators confirm a faulty sensor was triggered on the 737 Max shortly before it crashed.

This is somewhat unfamiliar territory for Boeing.

Boeing aircraft have been grounded before. In 2013, the then brand-new 787-8 Dreamliner was grounded for several months after its lithium-ion-battery-powered electrical showed a tendency to catch fire. The aircraft was grounded by the FAA and then cleared for flight after Boeing came up with a redesign of the system. The plane has become one of the most popular long-haul airliners with little to no stigma attached to it.

But things are different for the 737 Max. Most significantly the fact that 346 people are now dead due to crashes.

According to Harteveldt, Boeing’s strategy must be twofold. First, it has to convince airlines that they should continue to operate the 737 Max. Then Boeing has to convince passengers and airline crew that its planes are the same safe products they have always known.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 storageMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty ImagesSouthwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft at the Southern California Logistics Airport.

While Boeing has traditionally been an effective communicator in a business-to-business setting, communicating directly with flyers is something the company does less of. After all, the flying public doesn’t usually spend money directly with Boeing unless you’re buying souvenirs from its museum gift shop in Seattle.

Regardless, Boeing must make that shift. It’s got go from a B2B-oriented business to one that speaks to the travelling public. And it will feel pressure from its airline customers to do so.

“The airlines are going to want Boeing to take steps to make the travelling public feel confident in Boeing aircraft,” Harteveldt said.

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