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Analysis: 'Uphill battle' for Boeing to regain public trust in 737-MAX

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A Boeing 737 Max 9 built for Aeromexico flies after taking off from Renton Municipal Airport, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.

Airlines have the go-ahead from federal regulators to start using the Boeing 737-MAX again. The plane, which is made in Renton, has been grounded nearly two years following a pair of deadly crashes.

And while the Federal Aviation Administraton’s recertification of the aircraft is good news for Boeing and airlines, it’s going to be a while before the crisis is fully “over,” says Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of The Air Current, a Seattle-based news outlet covering aviation.

There are hundreds of jets waiting to be delivered to customers — a process that could take a couple years. And then there’s the matter of trust. Will the public have faith in the process regulators, Boeing, and airlines have undertaken, and be willing to fly on the MAX again?

Ostrower spoke with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco. Listen above, and read some highlights below.


On production in Renton: “Over the last 20 months, since the 737-MAX went through its grounding, Boeing spent a lot of that time continuing to build airplanes, at a really high rate of speed. … On top of everything, Boeing has 450 airplanes that they have to deliver that have already been built, that are sitting in storage facilities. … Boeing says that’s going to take about two years to do. When you combine this huge inventory with what is ultimately an unprecedented downturn in commercial air travel, you have a situation where the production rate, and the pace of its return to levels that we saw before the pandemic, are really going to stretch into 2021, 2022, 2023. It’s going to take a herculean effort to get all these airplanes out the door.”

On airlines’ role in getting the MAX back in service: “Any airline that has purchased the 737-MAX, that’s going to be where the rubber meets the road. When Boeing did its public opinion research, what they found was that the flying public wanted to hear from those that actually flew the airplane. That was the pilots, that was the flight attendants. Their confidence to get on the airplane every single day, day in and day out, was an endorsement that said ‘This is safe, you should feel safe, too.’”

On public trust: “There’s Boeing and the FAA and global regulators saying the airplane is tested and validated on a scientific process that says ‘Yes, the airplane is safe.’ That’s something you can put your hands on. ‘Safe’ is also a perception. It’s how we view something as safe. That’s the harder half of this equation. What Boeing found during some public opinion research in late 2019 is that 40% of travelers did not want to fly the MAX. That figure … has been replicated by other public opinion research groups. That tells you a lot about the uphill battle that’s to come.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.