Boeing’s troubled 737 Max aircraft likely won’t be flying again until the fall, and maybe even later. This weekend, American Airlines announced that it is extending cancellation of about 115 daily flights into September, as testing and flight certifications incorporating software upgrades haven’t been completed yet.
Southwest Airlines and United Airlines also operate the 737 Max, grounded worldwide since mid-March, and both carriers had already extended flight cancellations past the busy summer travel season.
But even when the 737 Max returns to service, a new consumer survey indicates that travelers harbor significant concerns about the jet’s safety, which could complicate the lives of professional travel advisors.
One in four leisure travelers and one in five business passengers “definitely intend to avoid the plane,” even after it is reintroduced to airline schedules, according to a survey of 2,000 U.S. airline passengers, recently completed by Atmosphere Research Group, San Francisco, California.
“There are a lot of terrified airline passengers out there. Travel advisors will be serving some of them,” said Henry Harteveldt, Atmosphere Research president and travel industry analyst.
“When the 737 MAX is allowed to return to service, travel advisors should be prepared for more passengers to ask about the type of plane scheduled to operate a flight. Advisors should be prepared for people to state upfront that they don’t want to fly on a MAX, or if told the flight will use a MAX, get requests to be booked on flights that use other types of aircraft”
Atmosphere Research found that just 14 percent of consumers “would definitely” fly the aircraft within six months of its return to service. Only one in five would definitely fly the 737 Max within 12 months of returning to the skies, and more than two in five passengers would take less convenient flights or pay more for alternative flights to avoid flying the 737 Max.
Atmosphere Research said in its report that while it doesn’t expect 40 percent or more of passengers to avoid the 737 MAX, “even if actual avoidance is one-tenth the results in the study, given the size and scope of many airlines that have ordered the 737 MAX, there is a risk airlines could face a large number of passengers who would avoid the plane.”
Additionally, Atmosphere Research found that ongoing news coverage about oversight of Boeing by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has caused 56 percent of business passengers and 44 percent of leisure passengers to “consider the relationship between Boeing and the FAA to be too cozy.”
If the FAA’s trust as an agency protecting flyer safety “is weakened or, worse, shattered, it’s possible the number of anxious flyers may grow, and travelers’ confidence about flying, at least on Boeing aircraft, may fall. The result? Some people may opt for flights on non-Boeing aircraft, while others may cut back on their air travel,” Atmosphere Research said in its report.
Are leisure travelers specifically sensitive to the 737 Max grounding?
Vacationers seem to be keenly sensitive to the 737’s safety issues.
“Leisure travelers fly less often than business travelers, and so they may be more focused on safety. It’s thus possible the news coverage of the 737 MAX’s problems may cause them more concern. Plus, with summer vacations looming, it’s possible leisure passengers may be more focused on the grounding because of possible direct effect on their vacations,” Atmosphere Research said.
Even after the 737 MAX is back in service for a year, 65 percent of leisure passengers aren’t sure whether they’d want to fly on it, Atmosphere Research said.
The aversion towards the 737 Max could lead to more difficult conversations for travel advisors as they are planning client trips. Atmosphere Research estimates that 57 percent of business passengers and half of leisure travelers pay attention to the type of aircraft they are flying when planning and booking their flights.
In the survey, the company presented passengers with three different scenarios, and asked them whether they’d choose a flight for a vacation on a 737 MAX or a different plane. The first scenario asked passengers to choose from a nonstop flight on a 737 MAX or a connecting flight that would take 90 minutes more either way on a different type of single-aisle jet airliner.
Forty-three percent of business passengers and 45 percent of leisure passengers preferred the longer connecting flight.
When Atmosphere Research asked passengers whether they would prefer a more conveniently timed nonstop on a 737 MAX or a less convenient nonstop aboard an Airbus A320, 44 percent of both business and leisure passengers opted for the less conveniently timed A320 nonstop.
In a third scenario, passengers were given the option of a nonstop on a 737 MAX or a nonstop on a different airplane, which would cost $40 more each way — or $80 more round-trip. Some 47 percent of business passengers and 49 percent of leisure passengers chose the more expensive, non-737 MAX nonstop.
“It says a great deal that, for a product where convenience (namely schedule) and
price often dominate passengers’ purchase decision-making, many — for now — would choose less convenient, more expensive options to avoid a 737 MAX,” Atmosphere Research said.
Consumers are mostly seeking trusted updates from network and cable TV news programs, followed by national newspapers. When asked, “Of the following ways to get news and information, which three would you trust most to receive updates about the 737 MAX?” agents were listed only by 4 percent of the respondents.
“I believe that travel advisors can and will play a more substantial role in helping instill confidence about the 737 MAX with their clients than either our research suggests, or that the agents may believe,” said Harteveldt.
“Agents need to avail themselves of as much credible information as possible about the MAX’s various safety improvements to provide clients with objective, useful information,” he said.
“The agents (or their agency managers) should post the information, or links to the information, on their websites and social media accounts. They may want to consider a proactive email campaign with news about the plane as well,” adding that “when an agent flies on the MAX after it is back in service, the agent should share that as well.”
Harteveldt said today’s airline passenger anxiety about an aircraft hasn’t been seen since the Douglas DC-10 was grounded in the 1970s.
When Harteveldt worked in TWA’s passenger advertising department in the mid-1980s, “we still saw some consumer resistance to the DC-10 in our market research. We found we were able to successfully sell against the DC-10 by promoting that we flew the Lockheed L-1011, a competing aircraft..
“Once the 737 Max was allowed to return to service, its reliability helped restore consumer confidence,” he said. A consistent safe return performance by the 737 Max would likely have the same effect on American travelers. “Consumer fears didn’t really last too long. The DC-10 went on to have a successful, four-decade long history of passenger service.”
“I think one thing that helped with restoring confidence in the DC-10 was that we were still in a world of ‘traditional’ media. We didn’t have digital media, nor did we have social media. Today, the presence of both can be a double-edged sword. On the positive side, digital and social media can play roles in communicating news updates and information far faster, and far more broadly. The risk to both is that consumers may not trust the outlets, and we have seen how easy it is for some to successfully publish false information.”
Atmosphere Research conducted the online survey from April 27 to May 1, with an average age of 46 years old for leisure traveler respondents, and a household income of nearly $94,000. The survey’s participants were selected at random from the US panel of a third-party market research firm that operates a global consumer panel of more than 100 million people.