What will it take for the Boeing 737 Max to fly again and stay in the air?

Ashwini Phadnis New Delhi November 19 | Updated on November 19, 2019

Some believe that the simplest option for Boeing is to change the name of the single-aisle MAX aircraft. File Photo   -  Reuters

Some brand specialists say the 737 Max needs to be renamed, others say Boeing needs to regain credibility; much will depend on what global aviation regulators say

If you think Boeing’s problems are going to end with its optimistic predictions of a January re-launch of its grounded 737 MAX aircraft, think again. Even if the aircraft maker believes the plane is sound, it will first have to get certified by the US Federal Aviation Authority, and by aviation watchdogs across the world, including the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India. And, of course, European regulators.

Also read: Timing of 737 MAX return in hands of regulators, says Boeing

Is rebranding the way to go?

Advertising and public relations firms believe that getting the right message across about the safety of the aircraft to the flying public is one exercise that the American manufacturer will have to concentrate on to change perceptions about the MAX.

Some believe that the simplest option for Boeing is to change the name of the single-aisle MAX aircraft. This is a time-tested strategy that airlines have sometimes adopted to put a tragedy behind. In India, for instance, Air India retired the IC 814 code of its ill-fated aircraft hijacked by terrorists from Kathmandu to Kandahar. The airline still flies the Kathmandu Delhi route but the flight number is now AI 214 and not IC 814.

In fact, there are rumours that a low-cost European airline is planning to change the name of the Boeing 737 MAX to Boeing 737 8200 (200 is said to denote the number of seats on the aircraft). However, neither Boeing nor the European carrier have made any official comment on this as yet.

Differing view

There are others who feel that renaming will not solve Boeing’s problems. Says Harish Bijoor, Brand Strategist and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc: “In this case the brand is the product, far deeper than any brand can be a brand. Therefore, renaming is not an option. What Boeing can do is reinvent and offer the new offering as something diversely different from the MAX. I think that is possible if attempted,” he says adding, “An infected apple by ANY other name is still an infected apple!”

Jagdeep Kapoor, CMD Samsika Marketing Consultants, adds: “Name change is escapism. To put things right physically, actually, factually and perceptually is the correct way.” According to Kapoor, credibility is the key that Boeing can achieve by what it has done over the years and what it intends to do differently in the years to come, honestly and transparently.

Related news: Boeing 737 MAX saga: How the FAA nearly brought the global aviation industry to its knees

The Airbus experience

On their part, industry watchers feel that public memory is short and it will not be long before flyers once again board the aircraft when it is cleared for service. They point to what happened with the Airbus A-320 aircraft that crashed during a test-flight at an airshow in 1988. India also banned the aircraft after the crash but the aircraft was later brought back into service. Despite the tragedy, the A-320 went on to become a bestseller for European aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

Things, however, are different now. “The Europeans probably got away lightly back then because it was not such an interconnected world, as is the case now. Eventually, the Boeing MAX will also get out of this. But it will take that much longer,” says an airline veteran with over three decades of experience.

Regulatory overhang

Nothing can happen, of course, until the plane gets the regulatory all-clear to fly again. And that may not be a smooth affair. “The US may allow the MAX to fly. But all the global agencies have to allow its entry into service for this to be meaningful. Say the US allows it to fly but Europe says no. Then there could be an issue because a US carrier wanting to fly the MAX between US and Europe will be unable to do so,” said an aviation industry specialist.

And even if all the regulators in the world certify that the plane is fit to fly, there may be some hesitancy among flyers and even among flight crew after the tragedies involving Indonesia’s Lion Air and Ethiopian Airways, in which nearly 350 people were killed. Reports from the US say that American Airways flight attendants are not keen on serving on the aircraft.

The India angle

India, too, is likely to be affected by whether the MAX flies or not. Almost 5,000 of the aircraft have been ordered by more than 100 customers worldwide. A cursory look at the Boeing website shows that about 21 of the total 68 customers will be able to operate the MAX into and from India, including SpiceJet.

Also read: Indian pilots express doubts about resuming commercial services with 737 MAX in Jan

But will Indian carriers take a chance and re-introduce the aircraft in their fleets, assuming the DGCA gives the plane the all-clear? Nobody knows. What is clear is that the coming period will be a trying time for Boeing, for aviation watchdogs across the world and for airlines that have ordered the Boeing 737 MAX.

It’s going to take a huge effort to put the Boeing 737 Max back in the air again, and keep it there.

Published on November 19, 2019

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