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Boeing must quickly take major steps to regain the public’s confidence about its 737 MAX model, according to a new report from the Atmosphere Research travel consultancy.

The report from San Francisco-based Atmosphere quantified travelers’ feelings and fears about the troubled jet. The group surveyed 2,000 US airline passengers age 18 and older from April 27 through May 1.  Over 32% of the passengers who participated said they took at least one business trip annually, while nearly 97% took at least one leisure or personal trip annually.

The report found that:

  • Most passengers are comfortable flying, but “white knuckle” fliers exist. “It’s possible the extensive coverage of the 737 MAX’s problems may have elevated” the latter travelers’ apprehensions; it is also possible “the 737 MAX’s problems may result in airline front-line employees serving a larger number of travelers who have heightened concerns about flying.”
  • Seventy-two percent of US passengers know the 737 MAX is grounded.
  • When asked which entity they hold responsible for the 737 MAX’s problems, the majority of both business and leisure passengers cited Boeing. A considerable number also view the FAA, which certified the plane as safe, as responsible; in addition, 56% of business passengers and 44% of leisure passengers consider the relationship between Boeing and the FAA to be too cozy.
  • “Modern air travel has relied on passengers’ placing almost blind faith in the FAA and the firms like Boeing that design and build commercial planes. If this trust is weakened or, worse, shattered, this may over time increase the number of people who are concerned about flying and also make travelers feel less confident about flying on Boeing aircraft. The result? Some travelers may opt for flights on non-Boeing aircraft. Others may cut back on air travel,” the report concluded.
  • Just 14% of all US passengers would definitely fly on a 737 MAX within six months of its return to service. Only one in five would definitely fly on the plane in its first year.
  • More than two in five passengers would take flights that are less convenient or more expensive to avoid flying on a 737 MAX.  However, the report also predicted that “if a 737 MAX flight has fewer people booked on it than a flight that uses another type of plane, the 737 MAX flight may have less expensive fares available for sale,” which could attract price-sensitive travelers.

Boeing has lost passengers’ trust and respect and must regain both, said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research. He said it could be a challenge for Boeing, which focuses more on business-to-business interactions with airlines and governments than on directly engaging with front-line consumers.

To regain passengers’ trust, Harteveldt added Boeing “will need to be hypertransparent in sharing information about the steps it’s taking to make the 737 MAX a safe airplane.”

For example, he said it could offer travelers videos and explanations of the changes it is making to the plane’s flight control software, the airplane’s sensors, pilot cockpit displays and anything else that may be relevant. He predicted videos of Boeing’s test pilots and an online interactive Q&A forum also would be well-received, as would making Boeing’s CEO and other executives available for interactive Q&A forums, interviews or interactive forums with some of Boeing’s engineers and the people who actually assemble the 737 MAX.

Asked for comment on the Atmosphere Research Group’s findings, a Boeing spokesman provided a statement made by the company’s CEO, Dennis Mullenberg, in a speech at the George W. Bush Presidential Center Forum on Leadership in Dallas in April:

“We’ll do everything possible to earn and re-earn that trust and confidence from our airline customers and the flying public in the weeks and months ahead. We take the responsibility to build and deliver airplanes that are safe to fly and can be safely flown by every single one of the professional and dedicated pilots all around the world. My team and I are working closely with our customers to answer their questions, get their feedback and ensure those who operate the MAX are prepared when the grounding is lifted and the fleet returns to flight.”

The spokesman also pointed to two television interviews Mullenberg has given in the past week about the 737 MAX –one with CBS and another with CNBC — in which he apologized for the crashes and discussed the fallout.

Featured image courtesy of Boeing.

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