Image: CEO Doug Parker (third from left) with his wife Gwen and American Airlines employees, Dec. 1, 2020. Source: Instagram @doug_parker.
By Tracy Rucinski
DALLAS (Reuters) – Boeing Co’s 737 MAX took off on Wednesday on its first public appearance with media onboard since being grounded over fatal crashes, as one of its biggest customers, American Airlines, seeks to prove it is safe for passengers.
Wednesday’s flight from Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, comes weeks before the first commercial passenger flight on Dec. 29, and is part of a concerted PR effort to restore the jet’s image following a 20-month ban.
American Airlines Chief Executive Doug Parker said on Instagram he had flown on the MAX with his wife and airline colleagues on Tuesday “with the utmost peace of mind.”
Boeing’s best-selling jet was grounded in March 2019 after two crashes in five months killed a combined 346 people, marking the industry’s worst safety crisis in decades and undermining U.S. aviation regulatory leadership.
Wednesday’s flight marks the first time anyone besides regulators and industry personnel have flown on the MAX since the grounding, which rocked the aviation industry and ignited investigations focusing on software that overwhelmed pilots.
In a display of the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to aviation just as the MAX starts its comeback, each of the roughly 90 journalists, flight attendants and other American Airlines employees on Wednesday’s flight wore face masks.
“The history of aviation is built around a chain of safety,” Captain Pete Gamble told passengers just before takeoff. “When the chain of safety breaks it’s up to those of us in the industry to mend it and bring it back.”
Last month, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration cleared the jet following design changes and new training.
A smooth return to service for the MAX is seen as critical for Boeing’s reputation and finances, which have been hit hard by a freeze on MAX deliveries as well as the coronavirus crisis.
It is bracing for intense publicity from even routine glitches by manning a 24-hour “situation room” to monitor every MAX flight globally, and has briefed some industry commentators on details on the return to service, industry sources said.
Boeing has said that airlines will take a direct role in demonstrating to passengers that the 737 MAX is safe.
“We are continuing to work closely with global regulators and our customers to safely return the fleet to commercial service,” a spokesman said.
Brazil’s Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes is planning a similar media event this month, with cautious hopes to fly its first commercial flights as soon as next week.
The PR efforts are designed to highlight software and training upgrades which the FAA has said remove any doubt about the plane’s safety.
But families of some victims of the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia have protested the return to service, saying it is premature before a final investigative report on the second crash has been released.
Boeing toned down its original plans for the plane’s return as the crisis dragged on longer than it expected – scrapping a high-profile publicity campaign, a ceremony in the Seattle area and a tour using an Oman Air 737 MAX, industry sources said.
Airlines and leasing companies have spent hundreds of billions of dollars buying the latest upgrade of the 737, the world’s most-sold passenger aircraft.
Lured by sharp discounts and anxious to help repair the MAX’s reputation around which they have built their fleet plans, some airlines are now stepping in to show commercial support.
Alaska Airlines agreed to lease 13 Boeing 737 MAX last week and Ireland’s Ryanair is expected to place a large order for the jets as soon as this week.
Reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Dallas, Texas; Additional reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in Sao Paulo, Tim Hepher in Paris; Writing by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by David Evans and Matthew Lewis.