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  • OPINION: How does industry recover from 737 Max grounding saga?

OPINION: How does industry recover from 737 Max grounding saga?

The Boeing 737 Max grounding is an evolving and multifaceted story. This makes it extremely hard to predict how it will be resolved, and the extent to which Boeing, its customers and the supply chain will be affected.

But the short-term outlook is ­certainly difficult.

The storm that broke on social media immediately after the Ethiopian tragedy on 10 March has created a crisis-­management challenge for the public relations teams from Boeing and the airlines the like of which is unprecedented in modern times.

"We have the fundamentals of the 'rolling unravelling' of a strong Boeing brand," is how Ascend by Cirium chief economist Peter Morris characterises the situation. And that "unravelling" extends far and wide. In the weeks following the accident, long-established industry names have begun to resemble a house of cards.

Not only does it seem to be open season to take pot shots at Boeing amid accusations of "corporate greed" winning out over safety and honesty, but the spotlight has also swung on to the reputation of the US certification authority.

The great marketing job that Boeing has done promoting its fourth-generation 737 family around the catchy "MAX" designation has created a strong brand awareness that may prove one of the hardest challenges to tackle. And it will also need to rebuild faith in its safety culture, just as the Federal Aviation Administration does.

In situations like this, it is often helpful to look to the past for answers. But the Max suspension is unlike any of the other high-profile groundings in modern times – and of course takes place in the glare of intense social-media scrutiny.

It's difficult to judge just how damaging the grounding of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was to its reputation following the 1979 crash of an American Airlines aircraft. The FAA suspended the DC-10's type certificate after the crash, which followed an in-flight engine separation after a pylon failed. Ultimately, the fault was found to be with maintenance procedures, rather than the DC-10's design, and flying quickly resumed following inspections.

But the American crash had occurred amid a series of high-profile fatal accidents, and the DC-10 began to gain a reputation among the flying public – unaided by social media – of being a jinxed aircraft. Its image suffered accordingly.

The DC-10, of course, lived on in the form of the MD-11 – but McDonnell Douglas was conveniently able to rebrand the new variant from "DC" as the first post-merger civil product.

Renaming of the Max has today been advocated by US president and social-media influencer Donald Trump. "If I were Boeing, I would FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name," he tweeted. "No product has suffered like this one."

Boeing has a firm backlog of 4,600 Max orders and any impact the grounding has on this – and future additions – will be determined by its response to the investigations, both in words and deeds.

The smart money says that sense will prevail and that sooner rather than later the 737 Max will be flying again, allowing the delicate Airbus/Boeing ecosystem to be restored. Given that the industry had expected to produce 1,300 single-aisles in 2019, alternative scenarios make worrisome reading.

A 1979 Flight International opinion piece around the DC-10 grounding stated the simple decision-making process needed to return the aircraft to flight. Paraphrasing that article, which was titled "Inspecting the inspectors", it could equally apply to the 737 Max: "The decision rests on affirmative answers to two questions: is the cause of the accidents understood to the satisfaction of the most qualified experts? And do all proposed new procedures satisfy the same experts?"

The article went on to say that DC-10 engine mountings will "surely be the safest flying" after the scrutiny of the investigation. The same of course must be true for 737 Max ­systems and training.

But that is probably the easier challenge. A harder one will be convincing the world.

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