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Boeing CEO faces another grilling on Capitol Hill over Max

Boeing Company President and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg, right, is surrounded by photographers on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, before the start of a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on "Aviation Safety and the Future of Boeing's 737 MAX." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Even if the Boeing 737 Max is cleared to return to the skies, it needs a major image overhaul before it flies paying passengers again.

A big component of that overhaul undoubtedly will be a series of demonstration flights with high-profile folks on board. Think top executives of Boeing and the airlines, for starters, along with elected officials, media personalities and anyone else who might move the public-relations needle.

The goal will be to convince the traveling public that the 737 Max, grounded since March after two fatal crashes killed a total of 346 people, has been made safe by a combination of software fixes and new pilot training.

Boeing expects the Federal Aviation Administration to recertify the 737 Max before the end of the year, but that stamp of approval won’t necessarily convince travelers that the plane is safe. They’ll want to see the aircraft take off and land day after day without incident.

“After recertification, the next step is to do as many publicized demonstration flights as possible,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group.

Southwest Airlines, which tentatively expects the 737 Max to return to service on Feb. 8, says travelers so far aren’t avoiding flights scheduled to use the plane.

Southwest President Thomas Nealon also said on a recent conference call that fewer than 1 percent of passengers check to see what kind of plane they’ll be flying on. When Southwest surveyed its customers about the 737 Max, he added, “it is a supermajority who are saying this is not that big of an issue.”

Still, social media can magnify a minority opinion, and even a handful of customers refusing to board a given flight could cause a logistical and publicity nightmare for the airline.

The airlines and Boeing should have time to orchestrate a big public relations campaign. After they install the software fix, airlines will need time to train pilots and do maintenance on planes that have been parked for nine months.

The airlines’ PR challenge, Aboulafia figures, should be over after a few weeks. “Memories fade in this business,” he says. “They always have in the past.”

Boeing, though, will need longer to rebuild its once-sterling reputation for safety and reliability. Boeing has been criticized for failing to give pilots adequate information about how the 737 Max’s flight control system works, and for pushing ahead with a flawed design that was questioned by an employee.

The problems have made only a small dent in Boeing’s sales in the short run, and it still has a backlog of 4,400 737 Max orders, but they could affect buying decisions down the road. Even Southwest, which has always flown an all-Boeing fleet, recently said it might consider shopping elsewhere in the future.

“That was the best indication you’ll see of the severity of this reputational crisis,” Aboulafia says.

Boeing has already taken several steps aimed at putting the problems behind it, from firing the head of its commercial airplane unit to reorganizing its engineering function. Analysts say it will have to do more.

Jeff Windau, an analyst at Edward Jones, said Boeing might even need to get rid of the “Max” in the plane’s name. “Their reputation has been tarnished,” he said. “I think they’ll be able to rebuild it, but it is going to take some time.”

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