- The Boeing 737 Max is expected to return to service in the United States next week, with airlines rushing to put the plane back in the air, receive late order deliveries and place new orders, despite customer skepticism.
- Airlines want to operate the aircraft because it can help prevent rising fuel prices to keep costs low, especially during the recovery from the pandemic.
- History shows that the public does not remember the problems with the planes if the grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Douglas DC-10 serve as an indicator.
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Less than six weeks have passed since the Boeing 737 Max was taken off the ground by the Federal Aviation Administration and the plane is already carrying passengers across Brazil and Mexico, with plans to start in the United States in just seven days.
American Airlines will fly the aircraft first, followed by United Airlines in February and then by Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines in March. Gol Linhas Aéreas do Brasil began transporting passengers on the aircraft on December 9, just three weeks after the FAA disembarked, and Aeromexico soon did the same on December 21.
But as airlines rush to get their newly ungrounded planes flying again, take their back orders and place new orders for more models, customers are skeptical about getting back on board a plane that hasn’t carried passengers in 21 months and killed 346 people.
A Business Insider survey in March 2019 following the crash of Ethiopian Airlines’ ET302 flight revealed that more than half of respondents would not fly on the plane. And that was before the public had a glimpse of the aircraft’s certification process and Boeing’s deception of regulators and customers, especially with regard to installing the faulty software that led to the accidents.
Airlines, however, have been waiting for the moment for almost two years and are eager to leave the ground behind.
This is where airlines are rushing to make Max fly again after a long stranding period.
Fuel costs are rising
A key selling point of Max is its fuel efficiency as a protection against rising fuel costs, which can be fatal for airlines. In recent years, we have seen a lift in high prices for jet fuel, but numerous factors, such as geopolitical clashes, as we saw between Russia and Saudi Arabia in the early days of the pandemic, could cause oil prices to fall or rise , at a time notice.
“There is a concern that fuel prices are going up again, and could go up again with the recovery,” Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, told Business Insider.
A low-fuel fleet can help keep costs low, especially during recovery, when every penny saved will help airlines increase their exhausted flight schedule and hire more workers. Alaska Airlines cited a 20% increase in fuel efficiency from its Airbus A320 to its Boeing 737 Max 9s, which will be delivered soon, while carrying more passengers.
It is good for the environment and for financial results.
Boeing needs to sell more planes
Airlines are also showing that they cannot pass up a good deal, even if it is for a troubled aircraft. Boeing still has a product to sell and each Max sold goes above and beyond to restore confidence in the jet so that good prices can be obtained, Aboulafia said.
Orders have been arriving since closure, with Ryanair from Ireland placing an order for 75 aircraft and Alaska Airlines adding a total of 36 additional aircraft to a two-order deal with Air Lease Corporation and Boeing in December.
Boeing not only has to sell new buildings, but also aircraft that have been built and never delivered to a customer, known as “white tails”, as the combination of grounding and the pandemic has led to an increase in cancellations. Alaska Airlines not only announced an order for 23 aircraft on Tuesday, increasing its total firm orders to 68 jets to be delivered by 2024, but also opted for nine white tails.
Southwest Airlines was also reportedly in negotiations to acquire white tails and will take over 35 Max aircraft in 2021. Despite having the largest Max fleet in the United States before stranding, Southwest will be one of the last airlines in the United States to fly Max, waiting at least until March before placing passengers on the aircraft.
Tearing off the bandage
American is starting the jet at its Miami hub, in a region that saw growing demand during the pandemic, which, according to Aboulafia, could be the reason the airline wants to fly with it so quickly. When starting the popular Miami-New York route, the aircraft will soon be expanded by the American route map from Miami to destinations like San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; and Washington, DC.
And the sooner the jet spreads again in the United States, the sooner the public can forget about the two failures that its previously defective software has caused, if history is any indicator.
As Aboulafia noted, the Boeing 737 Max is not the first aircraft to be landed after high-profile incidents, not even the first in 2010 as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was shortly after its debut.
The Douglas DC-10 also came to mind because the aircraft had a long flying career, despite a high profile incident. A United Airlines flight operated by the aircraft famously landed in Sioux City, Iowa, resulting in more than 100 deaths, just under a third caused by the 737 Max.
And despite the following stranding by the FAA, the DC-10 has still been flown by passenger airlines for decades and still flies packages for FedEx Express today. A military variant also still flies to the United States Air Force as an air refueler, known as the KC-10 Extender.
But the name “737 Max” has become synonymous with safety concerns, as the two accidents and the subsequent stranding were global news, with President Donald Trump even agreeing to his stranding in March 2019. Some people in the public traveling are vowing not to fly the plane once it returns to service, despite the strenuous recertification process.
And there are good reasons for skepticism, as employee email and chat transcripts revealed how Boeing deceived customers and regulators, calling an airline “idiots” for recommending additional training, and a US Senate report recently released criticizes aspects of the recertification process.
Read More: The 16 most outrageous things Boeing employees have said about the company, the 737 Max program and each other in internal emails released
All US airlines that fly Max are promoting the safety of the aircraft and, at the same time, promise to give customers flexibility when booking Max so they can change flights for free if they wish. But travelers need to know that they are flying in a Boeing 737 Max first.
“The world is divided equally between people who cannot differentiate one type of 737 from another and those who can,” said Aboulafia. “But if they know that, they also know that this is the most examined jet in history.”
A more recent example comes from the early days of the pandemic of recovery in the civil aviation sector with the debate on social distance on board.
American Airlines and United Airlines were criticized for filling their planes so early, but only a few months later, the airlines that blocked the seats are now returning to full flights. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, for example, announced their new aircraft supply policies before the first COVID-19 vaccine was released for emergency clearance.
The public soon forgets the headlines and time is a healer. Five years from now, Aboulafia says that Max’s problems will be “absolutely forgotten for a long time”.