Southwest Airlines 'proud' of the Boeing 737 MAX, no plans for rebranding campaign
Southwest Airlines is standing by the latest generation of the Boeing 737 that has driven its success for nearly five decades.
"We bought the 737 MAX 8 and we’re proud of the 737 MAX 8," Tom Nealon, president of the Dallas-based carrier, said during a media briefing on Thursday. Southwest aims to return its 34 MAXes to passenger service sometime in April after all necessary pilot training, software updates, maintenance and proving flights are complete.
Nealon's comments come a day after the Federal Aviation Administration re-certified the MAX after a 20-month grounding. The jet was parked in March 2019 after two fatal crashes that took the lives of 346 people.
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What Southwest does not plan is a marketing or rebranding campaign to rejuvenate the image of the beleaguered MAX in the eyes of the public. A number of industry insiders have suggested such a campaign may be necessary for the continued success of Boeing's bread-and-butter jet.
"As far as we know now, there are just a minority of customers who are not comfortable with it yet," Nealon said in response to questions on flyer confidence. "I think people need to get on the plane and experience it.”
To that end, Southwest could begin flying its MAXes on proving and training flights as early as December. These will allow all of its pilots time to get reacquainted with the jet and the changes mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The flights double as an opportunity to show weary travelers that the MAX is safe before actual passenger bookings are on the line.
And some of those flights will be a higher profile. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said he will fly on some of the proving flights during the airline's return-to-service preparation.
Related: US authorities lift Boeing 737 MAX grounding, allow jets to resume flights
Past experience shows that an extended grounding can tarnish the image of a jet. This is the fate that befell the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 after it was grounded for 37 days following an American Airlines crash in 1979.
While the Long Beach-based planemaker initially opted to stay quiet and let the DC-10 reprove itself to flyers, McDonnell Douglas saw a drop in confidence — and the disappearance of new orders — in its flagship wide-body aircraft, according to a recent analysis by The Air Current. This prompted it to launch a marketing campaign in 1980 that was widely seen as a misstep.
"It is hard to think of how McDonnell Douglas could have more effectively reminded us that it was in this plane they manufactured that 273 people died," a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote at the time.
Boeing and airlines face a similar quandary now. Do they market the MAX as safe and risk reminding flyers of the 346 people who died? Or do they bet that simply letting the 737 resume flying with little fanfare and prove itself out as the best course of action? On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic has added other worries to the minds of would-be travelers.
Related: American, Southwest and United prepare for the return of the 737 MAX
"You could try to do a marketing deal and change the branding and this and that, but people know what they’re flying and we’re proud of what we’re flying," said Nealon.
For Southwest flyers, the carrier will not surprise any travelers with a MAX flight. The airline has set up a dedicated MAX webpage on its site that is its primary communication center for customers, Nealon said. In addition, every flyer booked on a MAX 8-operated flight will have "visibility" on what aircraft is operating their flight before departure. Any one uncomfortable flying on the MAX will be able to change their flight to one flown by the 737-700 or -800 on the same routing with no fare difference, subject to availability.
The ability to change flights will be available to travelers even if they make a decision at the gate, he added.
Related: Will airlines rebrand the 737 MAX if Boeing does not?
Rebranding the MAX is in Boeing's hands. The planemaker has subtly dropped the "MAX" name from its public statements on the jet's individual variants, referring to them as the 737-8 or 737-9 instead of the 737 MAX 8 and 737 MAX 9. However, it continues to refer to the family as the 737 MAX.
“If Boeing decides to change the model name or number, that’s what it will be," Kelly said Thursday.
Even with questions swirling, Southwest remains eager to get the MAX back in the air and take delivery of more MAXes. The jet remains the most fuel efficient it operates and is the future 175-seat mainstay of its fleet.
Related: Southwest Airlines on full-court press to win back biz flyers, one airport tour at a time
This is a key difference between the DC-10 and MAX comparison. The MAX is the latest, most-efficient 737 — a jet that is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, in the world. The DC-10, on the other hand, already faced new, more efficient twin-jets like the Airbus A300 and Boeing 767 when it was ungrounded. And even with the current health crisis that's hit travel hard, airlines want efficiency improvements with many using the downturn to accelerate fleet updates.
Both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have used the pandemic to accelerate the retirement of older jets. For example, American removed its Boeing 757s and Embraer E190s, focused on a simplified — or cheaper — narrow-body fleet of A320 family and 737 family jets.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American is due to be the first U.S. carrier to reintroduce the MAX on flights between Miami (MIA) and New York LaGuardia (LGA) on Dec. 29.
Related: US airlines may retire 1,000 jets as a result of the coronavirus
United Airlines also operates the MAX with plans to resume passenger flights in the first quarter of 2021. Alaska Airlines has 37 737 MAXes on order with the first delivery due in January with flights beginning sometime next spring.
Come April, when Southwest plans to resume MAX flights, the airline is weighing whether to reintroduce its 34 planes all at once or gradually. The downturn gives it the flexibility to do either as it already has excess jets for the schedule it's currently flying. At the same time, returning the MAX may require just ripping off the band aid and doing it all at once.
"The pandemic makes this a pretty casual decision because we have a surplus of aircraft right now," said Kelly. "I’m anxious to get them back flying.”
On the question of additional MAX orders or a deal for "white tails" — or assembled jets with no buyer Kelly declined to comment saying talks with Boeing are continuing.
Related: Southwest Airlines is seriously considering the Airbus A220 for its next new jet