More than 80 per cent of business travel managers are concerned about flying on the Boeing 737 Max and two-thirds think their employees might change travel plans to avoid the aircraft even after it has been deemed safe to return to the skies, according to a new poll.
The survey, conducted by the US-based Global Business Travel Association for the Financial Times, is one of several recent opinion polls aimed at gauging passengers’ views of the plane, which has crashed twice since October, claiming 346 lives.
Passenger attitudes could be central to determining the final cost of the 737 Max crisis to Boeing, its airline customers and suppliers. The attitude of business flyers, in particular, could be critical because they contribute a large proportion of major carrier revenues.
It remains unclear when the 737 Max, a newer variant of the decades-old 737, will return to the skies following its grounding in March. The US Federal Aviation Administration must certify the safety of a software fix planned by Boeing. On Thursday, Southwest Airlines cancelled another month of flights, pulling the Max out of its schedules until September 2.
The 737 Max could remain grounded even longer outside the US, where some local regulators want to do their own independent checks of its airworthiness.
Airlines around the world are beginning to consider how best to reassure passengers when the aircraft comes back into service. Boeing has said that restoring the trust of the flying public is one of its biggest challenges.
Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Continental, one of the three US airlines that flies the Max, warned last month that some passengers may be tough to reassure. “The first and foremost objective is not to assume everyone will want to fly, or assume everyone will get over it,” he told CNBC.
The GBTA poll of travel managers found that 38 per cent were personally “very concerned” and 43 per cent “somewhat concerned” about travelling on a Max, while 19 per cent said they thought their employees were “very likely” to book away from the Max, with 48 per cent saying this was “somewhat likely”.
Collectively GBTA’s members manage more than $345bn of global business travel and meetings expenditures annually. The association received survey answers from 155 members contacted between June 7 and 11.
Other polling has been mixed. A recent UBS poll found that two-thirds of respondents never or seldom check plane type when booking travel, so just 3 per cent were likely to avoid the Max.
And a Reuters/IPSOS poll released last month found that only 43 per cent of respondents could identify that it was the 737 Max that had crashed. Some 57 per cent said price was their main criterion when booking air travel.
One senior executive at an airline that flies the Max said that feedback from large corporate accounts indicated that only “on the margins you might have someone who is concerned”.
Scott Solombrino, GBTA executive director, told the FT: “We’ve had nobody call us and tell us they are taking the 737 out of their global travel policy . . . but people want transparency, they want someone to say that the plane is fine and not just Boeing or the FAA, they just want to know that a lot of different agencies touched the problem.”
Signs of passenger nervousness appeared soon after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 on March 10. Several Southwest passengers contacted the airline on Twitter when their flight’s seat back safety card led them to believe they were flying a Max. Southwest used the same safety card for both its 737-800 and 737 Max aircraft.
The airline has since reprinted the cards.
Airlines flying the Max will face the choice of addressing the issue of safety full on when the plane is certified safe to fly, or to leave any communication to the regulator and try not to draw passengers’ attention to the model of aircraft.
Executives at one large airline, who did not wish to be identified, said they will probably provide a script for booking agents, flight attendants and others who may face questions from passengers, much as they would for a situation such as a public health emergency.
Chad Kleibscheidel of the Southwest flight attendants union said: “We’re trained to create an environment of calm and fun, we are trained to put people at ease, so we will do what we do any other day. If we’re confident, they’re confident.”
Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the American Airlines pilots union, said he does not expect a public-relations campaign around the Max’s return to service. “If this aircraft is certified to carry our life’s treasures, there will not be balloons and cake,” he said. “This will be a solemn day.”
Additional reporting by and Stefania Palma in Singapore, Lucy Hornby in Beijing, Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong and Andres Schipani in São Paulo