When Boeing's 737 Max Returns to the Skies, It Will Be Flying Full

When Boeing's 737 Max Returns to the Skies, It Will Be Flying Full
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Someday, more than a year after its second disastrous crash, the grounded Boeing 737 MAX will return to the skies. But will it be awash in empty seats when it does so? If recent surveys are to be believed, the answer is clearly yes. A December 2019 poll conducted by Bank of America estimated that only 20% of Americans would readily board the relaunched MAX.  (This figure excludes the 50% of respondents who had not heard of the MAX controversy, but one assumes that these people rarely if ever fly.). Boeing’s own surveys in December 2019 imply that more than 40% of potential air travelers now plan to steer clear of the MAX.   Montana Senator Jon Tester probably spoke for many when he declared that “I would walk before I was to get on a 737 MAX.”

To be sure, discrepancies often arise between what people tell pollsters and what they actually do.    But is that likely to occur here?   In fact, one can make a plausible case both for and against a large passenger boycott of the revived MAX.   It is useful to consider the arguments on both sides, and then to hazard a best guess about what might happen.      

Why Might Passengers Reboard the MAX?

That surveys need not be taken at face value was illustrated recently in the context of aviation. After a bloodied dentist was dragged in 2017 from a United Airlines flight, people aware of the incident told pollsters that they would overwhelmingly choose American Airlines over United, all other factors equal (79% to 21%).  44% of respondents went further and said that, rather than fly United nonstop, they would pay 30% more and fly one-stop on another carrier. In the event, however, the actual boycott was so small as to be statistically undetectable. Instead of declining, United passenger traffic and profits both increased.

Moreover, the MAX is not the only plane to have been grounded after a major air disaster. In June 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 crashed on takeoff in Chicago, killing all 271 passengers on board. Shortly thereafter, the DC-10 was grounded for more than a month. Yet research has shown that, within six months of the catastrophe,  passenger-traffic data offered no evidence at all of DC-10 avoidance among US air travelers.    In July 1989, another DC-10 crashed with three-digit fatalities tied to mechanical issues. A Wall Street Journal headline a few days later read “Jetliner Crash in Iowa Seems Sure to Reopen Question of DC-10 Safety.” Yet data analysis showed that passenger resistance to flying the DC-10 had practically disappeared by the end of 1989.

Moreover, the algorithms that set airfares will automatically act to counter resistance to flying the MAX.   If people start booking away from MAX flights, the fares on those flights will go down, while those on other flights will go up.   And if someone who chooses a MAX to save money has an uneventful flight, he would seem unlikely to resist subsequent flights on the MAX.

Then there is a forthcoming spectacle that might be quite dramatic: the pro-MAX campaign that will accompany the plane’s return to service. Some aspects of that campaign might be ineffective if not ludicrous, such as having an airline CEO and his family board a demonstration flight. (After all, even if the MAX were just as dangerous as before, no one would expect it to crash in the first few flights after relaunch.). But other elements of the program might be more convincing. For example, the new head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, is an experienced pilot and the former safety director of extraordinarily-safe Delta Airlines. If he declares himself fully satisfied that the MAX is safe, then many air travelers could be reassured. Declaring themselves the “last line of defense” against MAX problems, the pilots of American Airlines have pledged that that they won’t fly the MAX until absolutely confident in its safety. Their return to its cockpit could mean a lot to skittish passengers.  

Why Might Passengers Not Come Back? 

There is thus a serious case that MAX-avoidance will be minimal, but there is also evidence that suggests the opposite. In 2018, one Southwest Airlines passenger was killed after a exploding engine penetrated the fuselage, in the only such death in the airline’s 48-year history.  Yet Southwest estimated that it lost $100 million in passenger revenue because of the accident. With two crashes and 346 deaths in two years of operation, the MAX’s safety record is much worse than Southwest’s; if the adverse passenger reaction grew even remotely in proportion, the consequences would be huge. Furthermore, the passenger response to the 9/11 calamity was deep and long lasting. There were 19% fewer air travelers on US flights in November 2001 than November 2000 and, a year after the event, US passenger traffic was 9% lower in August 2002 than in August 2001. (This 9% drop might better be interpreted as a 13% decline, because passenger volumes on US airlines grew at a rate of 4.3% per year over 1994-2000.). Moreover, these 9/11 data reflect passengers who avoided flying entirely because of the cataclysm. Passengers wishing to avoid the MAX need do nothing so drastic, for there will be plenty of alternate flights on other aircraft. 

In addition, some fraction of the air travelers not afraid to fly the MAX might nonetheless refuse to do so.     Over the period of a full year, sordid revelations about Boeing and the MAX have arisen on a regular basis.  We live in an era of social media, where an errant remark by a company official can cause customers to boycott its product. Might a sizable number of passengers stay away from the MAX as a matter of principle, to reflect their deep disgust with Boeing?

So What Will Happen? 

In short, empirical evidence and other considerations point in opposite directions about future MAX avoidance. We are reminded of Yogi Berra’s observation that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  It is tempting to end this article the way Stockton ended his short story “The Lady or the Tiger?,” namely, by telling the reader that her guess is as good as mine. But readers might reasonably hope that, unless the author is genuinely uncertain about what will transpire, he will offer his best guess about future developments. So here goes.

In my view, the case for substantial resistance to reboarding the MAX is weak. A fundamental difference separates 9/11 and the Southwest accident from the MAX crashes. In the two former situations, passengers could plausibly fear that the tragedy could reoccur at any time. The MAX, by contrast, is being scrutinized in all sorts of ways by foremost aviators around the world, and it will only fly again when a strong consensus emerges that the problems that caused its two crashes have been solved. Given that aviation experts have done a magnificent job over the years in eliminating hazards and making flying safer and safer, it could seem farfetched to doubt their collective judgment about the MAX.

And while some “conscientious objectors” might foreswear the MAX out of contempt for Boeing, I imagine that they will be neither numerous nor persistent. Consumer boycotts are often unsuccessful: in a widely-known current campaign, Chick-Fil-A has been boycotted for the last decade, but its sales and profits have doubled over that period. Moreover, refusing to fly the MAX would presumably do more harm to the airline involved than to Boeing, while the non-MAX flight the passenger chooses instead will itself likely be aboard a Boeing plane. And if evidence mounts that other passengers are returning to the MAX, many would-be boycotters might conclude that their gesture would do little more than cause them inconvenience. 

How does it all add up? I believe that Boeing made terrible and unforgivable mistakes concerning the MAX, and that its year-long grounding was not some wild overreaction to mistakes by ineffective cockpit crews. But I also believe that, both substantively and in the public eye, the resumption of MAX flights will signify that the crisis surrounding the plane is over. My bet is that, soon after the MAX returns to the skies, it will be flying full. 

Arnold Barnett is the George Eastman Professor of Management Science/Professor of Statistics, MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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