A charm offensive by Boeing to persuade airlines, crews and passengers to rally behind its 737 Max plane is already running into resistance.
The effort, which includes daily calls with carriers as well as meetings with pilots and flight attendants, is being hampered by a problem of the company's own making. After a bungled response to two deadly crashes involving the jet, Boeing is facing credibility problems.
When Boeing dispatched one of its top lobbyists, John Moloney, to the headquarters of the influential union representing flight attendants a couple of weeks ago, he arrived determined to win their support. He met a skeptical audience.
"Reading your body language, you look cynical," Moloney said, according to three people who were present and took notes during the discussion with the Association of Flight Attendants. "If this explanation doesn't address your concerns, I'll come back; I'll bring a pilot."
Sara Nelson, the head of the union, told Moloney that she was rooting for Boeing but wasn't ready to tell flight attendants and travelers to fly on the Max.
"I don't know, sitting here right now, that I can tell you there's complete confidence that everything's been fixed at Boeing," she told Moloney.
The meeting, punctuated by contentious moments between the two sides, underscores how difficult it will be for Boeing to restore credibility with airlines and passengers.
In recent weeks, the company's chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, updated the heads of Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines -- the three carriers in the United States that fly the Max -- on progress. Last week, Boeing held a meeting in Amsterdam for European airlines to discuss new training for the Max, plans for a public affairs campaign and how to get idled planes ready to fly again. Similar meetings will happen in Shanghai, Singapore, Moscow, Dubai and Miami in the near future.
Boeing, a juggernaut with deep ties to Washington and one of the country's largest exporters, is on the defensive. The company is facing multiple federal investigations into design flaws that contributed to the accidents, along with a spate of lawsuits from the families of victims. Company executives and board members are deeply worried about the damage that has been done to Boeing's once-sterling reputation.
"Certainly there's concern," David Calhoun, the lead independent director of Boeing's board, said in an interview. "There is recognition on all of our parts that we're going to have to get out with restoring confidence in the Boeing brand broadly for years."
But there's a limit to how much Boeing can say. "It's an impossible situation because we're not allowed to comment on anything related to these accidents," Calhoun said.
"There's only one thing to do and that's to get a safe airplane back up in the sky," he said. "I can't message my way into it. Boeing can't message its way into it."
Boeing has been working furiously to get the Max flying again since its grounding in March. The company is preparing to submit a software fix in the coming weeks for U.S. regulators to approve.
It hosted hundreds of airline officials and pilots last month at the 737 Max factory in Renton, Wash. And it is in constant dialogue with regulators before a meeting that the Federal Aviation Administration is hosting with global aviation authorities in Fort Worth on May 23.
"Ultimately, the decision to return the Max to commercial service rests in the hands of global regulators," Gordon Johndroe, a Boeing spokesman, said in a statement.
Simultaneously, Boeing is shaping a public relations strategy to reach passengers. Although the final media plan is still in the works, Boeing will not be relying solely on its executives to win back the public's trust -- a recognition that its leadership has lost some goodwill.
The company and airlines agree that the chief executive, Muilenburg, as the face of a company under intense scrutiny, may not be the most effective messenger. Instead, the initial plan calls for pilots to play a major role in the campaign.
Airline executives in the United States are eager for the Max to return to service and for Boeing to succeed. But many are privately frustrated with the company's handling of the crisis, according to three people briefed on the matter. They believe that Boeing has mismanaged the public response to the crashes and are irked that the public relations blitz will fall to their pilots.
Pilots, too, are reluctant to become brand ambassadors for Boeing, which barely interacted with them before the Lion Air crash in October, the first of the two deadly accidents.
"Our response is 'yeah, that's cute. But we aren't going to hop into bed with you,'" said Mike Trevino, the spokesman for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. "We are still going to maintain an independent voice and call it as we see it."
In part, the reluctance stems from Boeing's mixed messaging. Despite having said "we own it," Muilenburg has not acknowledged that anything was wrong with the design of the 737 Max, saying that the design process followed standard procedures.
"We clearly have areas where we need to improve, including transparency," Johndroe, the Boeing spokesman, said in a statement.
Toward the end of the meeting with the flight attendants, Moloney made a last-ditch effort to win them over.
"We want you to be able to tell your members, this plane is safe to fly," Moloney said, according to the three people in attendance. "Whatever it takes."
Nelson, the union's leader, rattled off a list of things she needed from Boeing before agreeing. One was a letter from engineers working on the software update, saying they felt confident in the fix. Another was a full-throated apology from Boeing. Moloney promised to follow up.
"We think that Boeing's credibility directly relates to the credibility of U.S. aviation," Nelson told him. "It's important to us that the credibility and the leadership of U.S. aviation is maintained around the world."
SundayMonday Business on 05/12/2019
Print Headline: Boeing's bid to regain trust met with skepticism