What you need to know before you fly on a Boeing 737 MAX

The Boeing 737 MAX is back, but not everyone is thrilled.Twenty months after the it was first grounded following two fatal accidents, the US Federal A...

Posted: Nov 21, 2020 10:29 AM

The Boeing 737 MAX is back, but not everyone is thrilled.

Twenty months after the it was first grounded following two fatal accidents, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared the way for the airplane to fly again.

For the airlines that will operate the MAX, this creates a complex problem. How will they handle it when a traveler is afraid to get on board?

Airlines ordered the 737 MAX in droves when it was first launched, and there are now more than 5,000 on the books around the world.

The fourth generation version of the 737 delivers massive improvements in efficiency, burning 14% less fuel than the previous generation. Its new, efficient engines also offer a 40% smaller noise footprint on the ground with a quieter ride for those in the cabin.

Airlines were excited about the MAX and proudly showed it off to their customers when it first went into service. Then the accidents began.

On October 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. Then on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed just six minutes after takeoff. The similarities between the accidents were striking, but before the ultimate cause was determined, worldwide pressure led to the grounding of the airplane.

Feeling of fear

At the time of the grounding, American, Southwest, and United were the only US-based operators flying the MAX with a total of 72 aircraft in their fleets, according to Cirium data. Those were promptly sent to long-term storage and further deliveries were suspended.

Over the last 20 months, travelers have been regularly bombarded with news about just what went wrong.

While inexperienced pilots were initially blamed for the accidents, it soon became clear that the airplane's automation was largely at fault. This revelation made travelers uneasy, and as bad news piled up, the belief that the MAX was unsafe became pervasive in travelers' minds.

The MAX has now been so thoroughly reviewed by regulators and reworked by Boeing that it should be considered incredibly safe.

Additional pilot training requirements should help instill even more confidence in the airplane, but it's hard to shake the feeling of fear that many travelers will encounter in the near term.

For that reason, airlines have responded with special customer policies as they bring the airplane back into service.

It has been rumored that Boeing was considering rebranding the MAX as a way to sever the connection with the aircraft's troubled past, but that does not appear to be in the cards.

Earlier this year, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun seemed inclined not to make changes. "My instincts are that a change, just a straight-out change with a new name would be sort of silly," he said. "Our opportunity is simply to restore the faith and trust in the 737 family."

That thinking still appears to be in place; Boeing's announcement regarding the return to service prominently called the aircraft the 737 MAX.

'Transparency and flexibility'

Airlines also seem to be embracing the idea that cutting the connection with the past is a bad idea for building customer confidence. All of the US-based operators have made it clear they'll ensure the customer knows they will be flying on a MAX for the sake of transparency.

American Airlines had taken delivery of 24 MAX aircraft before the grounding, and it has 10 more coming before the end of the year as confirmed by President Robert Isom at the Skift Aviation Forum this week.

It is expected to be the first to put the aircraft back into regular commercial service with one flight per day scheduled between Miami and New York/LaGuardia from December 29.

If a traveler doesn't want to fly the airplane, a spokesperson for the airline succinctly explained the airline's strategy, "In short: transparency and flexibility."

When travelers search to book on American's website, they see the aircraft that's scheduled to operate each flight. If it's a MAX, it will clearly be displayed as such. Even if someone books a MAX and then later feels uncomfortable, there will be some flexibility to allow changes without charge.

But what if American swaps airplanes and puts a MAX on a route that was supposed to be operated by another aircraft?

American says it will have an "enhanced notification process" to tell travelers they've been moved to a MAX. Travelers will then be able to switch to a different flight or, if no other option is available, change their destination to anywhere within 300 miles of the original destination. Travelers can always cancel the flight and put it into a credit for future travel as well.

United -- with 14 MAX aircraft currently in the fleet -- will take this one step further when it returns the aircraft to service in the first quarter of 2021. It says it won't put a MAX on any route where it's not scheduled.

United also confirmed that travelers who do not want to fly on a MAX will either be rebooked at no cost or will be eligible to have their tickets refunded.

Alternative options

Southwest was the largest operator before the grounding with 34 MAX aircraft in the fleet. It is taking a slower approach with no return to service until the second quarter of 2021. In the meantime, it has created an online 737 MAX Resource Center for customers.

Southwest only flies 737 aircraft, so it knows that confusion may cause hesitation throughout the fleet once the MAX is back in the air.

Southwest has yet to put out exact customer guidelines since it won't put paying customers on the airplane for several months, but it does say that it will allow "customers booked on a 737 MAX 8 to request a change to a flight on one of our 737-700 or 737-800 aircraft as they approach their departure date, subject to seat availability."

The airline added that there will be no additional charge as long as the origin and destination cities remain the same.

Alaska Airlines hadn't taken delivery of the MAX before it was grounded, but it expects to receive its first one in January with first commercial service in March.

Alaska's key focus is on safety. Case in point: the first page of Alaska's dedicated MAX website uses the word "safe" 25 times.

All of these exception policies for the MAX will be temporary, with American saying that they will apply in "the immediate term," though it remains to be seen how long that will be in reality.

Internationally, the MAX still needs approval from other regulators to return to operation. The European Aviation Safety Agency is expected to begin consultations on whether to follow its US counterpart in the coming weeks, but ungrounding is not expected before the start of 2021.

It's not clear yet how many international carriers will handle the aircraft's return. Low-cost Ryanair, one of Europe's largest airlines, has reportedly said it won't inform customers if they're scheduled to fly on one of its MAX aircraft as they're only allocated a day before flying.

When the MAX does return to service and travelers see the aircraft flying safely day after day, the hope is that the fear will fade and most people can go back to forgetting about what aircraft they're flying on, just as it used to be.

Until that happens, however, travelers will have plenty of options to avoid the airplane.

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