While the Boeing Company and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continue to review the airworthiness of the 737 MAX aircraft, travel agencies and others in the industry need to begin planning for the education campaign to ease the public’s safety concerns.
The topic came up during a panel discussion at the American Society of Travel Advisors’ (ASTA) Corporate Advisory Council Forum 2020 meeting this week in Washington, D.C. During the session, industry leaders agreed that an extensive, coordinated marketing and communications campaign will be required to convince travelers that it is safe to book flights on the beleaguered aircraft.
“This affects the entire distribution system, our customers, everyone,” said Stewart Alvarez, head of industry affairs, Americas, for Amadeus, after a representative from American Airlines described the effort the carrier was making to keep travel advisors apprised of the recertification process.
“We need to encourage everyone to come together, not just American Airlines, to really facilitate the reintroduction of the 737 MAX. It doesn’t help for one airline to do the right thing, and the rest of the industry isn’t working together.”
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president, Valerie Wilson Travel, New York, agreed with Alvarez, adding, “We need to bring in the people who can help calm the travelers’ fears,” including airline pilots who are assisting their carriers in recertifying and testing the aircraft.
“We should have pilots speaking at our franchise meetings, our consortia meetings, ASTA meetings, helping explain what has been done to reintroduce the aircraft,” she said.
Roger Hale, president and CEO at ADTRAV Travel Management, in Birmingham, Alabama, also wants to see Boeing heavily involved in the education program. Like Wilson-Buttigieg said, Hale wants credible experts front and center speaking to agents and the public in a non-technical, non-legal manner.
“Not like that representative who spoke at ASTA last year. That was a terrible performance,” with corporate speak that won’t reassure the public, Hale said. He was referring to Christine Walsh, Boeing’s regional director of product marketing and former deputy chief pilot for Boeing’s 737 MAX Program. Walsh spoke during an ASTA Premium Business lunch during the 2019 ASTA Global Convention in Ft. Lauderdale.
“They need to lay out their cards and demonstrate to travelers how they have recertified this aircraft and why travelers should be assured,” he said.
Boeing forecasts a mid-2020 return
In a statement issued on Jan. 21, 2020, Boeing said they were currently estimating that the “ungrounding” of the 737 MAX “will begin during mid-2020. This updated estimate is informed by our experience to date with the certification process. It is subject to our ongoing attempts to address known schedule risks and further developments that may arise in connection with the certification process. It also accounts for the rigorous scrutiny that regulatory authorities are rightly applying at every step of their review of the 737 MAX's flight control system and the Joint Operations Evaluation Board process that determines pilot training requirements.
“Returning the MAX safely to service is our number one priority, and we are confident that will happen. We acknowledge and regret the continued difficulties that the grounding of the 737 MAX has presented to our customers, our regulators, our suppliers, and the flying public. We will provide additional information about our efforts to safely return the 737 MAX to service in connection with our quarterly financial disclosures next week.”
Educating the traveling public in advance of reintroduction will be important, but the industry is going to need ongoing communication plans for travelers who choose not to fly a 737 MAX. For example, a passenger who is rebooked on a flight utilizing a 737 MAX could have a visceral response to the decision if they don’t have a say in it.
“The constant updates about when the aircraft will return have been great,” said Jackie Friedman, CTC, CTIE, and president of Nexion Travel Group, “and it’s our responsibility to pass that information along to our clients so they can choose what flights and aircraft they want to take. But there are going to be situations that are going to arise that are going to be harder to predict for our clients. It’s going to be really important that we know these changes in advance.”