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Reputation is everything in air travel. Boeing is continuing to learn that the hard way as it navigates its way through one of the worst crises in its 103-year history. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports on what Boeing has to do to try to win back trust.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For decades, Boeing's reputation among airline pilots was second to none.
DENNIS TAJER: Yeah, I've been on Boeing aircrafts for over 33 years. And the saying was, if it ain't Boeing, I ain't going.
SCHAPER: But note how American Airlines 737 pilot Dennis Tajer uses the past tense after two Boeing 737 MAX airplanes crashed less than five months apart, killing 346 people. As for his trust now...
TAJER: Oh, it's been shaken. Absolutely. Boeing is still an incredible company, but they horribly fouled up this aircraft.
SCHAPER: Tajer, who is a spokesman for American's pilots union, says it's not just that Boeing installed a flawed flight control system that forced both planes into uncontrollable nosedives but that it never told pilots the system even existed. And Boeing even suggested pilot errors were more to blame for the crashes.
TAJER: These are just toxic liquid poured over the trust relationship. Doesn't mean we can't get there - it just means that it's more than trust but verify. We're down to, show me.
SCHAPER: With pilots' faith in Boeing shaken, who can blame frequent fliers like Wendy Rheault, who says she doubts she'll fly in a 737 MAX even if aviation regulators recertify the planes are safe?
WENDY RHEAULT: I think I would be uncomfortable flying it when it first came. I would have to kind of wait for a while. I think I'd have trouble.
SCHAPER: Jay Hanmantgad of London, another traveler at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on his way to Ottawa, says he would fly on a MAX but only after European, Canadian and other international regulators determined it as safe. And he says his once-high opinion of Boeing has changed.
JAY HANMANTGAD: Yes, it certainly has.
SCHAPER: How so?
HANMANTGAD: Well, I mean, I guess they hurried the plane through because of their economic gains, which is clearly, you know, a criminal offensive, I would say. So they need to be held accountable for that.
SCHAPER: A recent survey of 2,000-plus air travelers shows that more than 80% say they would avoid flying on a 737 MAX in its first six months back, and more than half would even pay a higher fare just to avoid flying on a MAX.
And even the crew members who passengers interact with the most are raising questions about Boeing's safety practices and culture. Here's Lori Bassani of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
LORI BASSANI: I think the most important thing is that the confidence and the trust has been shaken.
TIM CALKINS: I think it's a really critical moment for Boeing as a corporation.
SCHAPER: Tim Calkins teaches branding and crisis management at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He says Boeing needs pilots, flight attendants and their airlines to vouch for the plane's safety because Boeing's own credibility is on shaky ground.
CALKINS: The hard part right now is that there's very little Boeing can say that people will really believe. You know, if Boeing says the plane is safe, I'm not sure I believe that because they were saying that before.
SCHAPER: To that end, Boeing officials have been meeting with regulators, airlines, pilots and other key groups as they develop and test software fixes for the MAX planes. And the company is reaching out in other ways, too.
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JENNIFER HENDERSON: When I take a 737 MAX for a test flight, it's deeply important that I do my job right.
SCHAPER: Jennifer Henderson is Boeing's chief 737 test pilot and one of several employees promoting Boeing's safety culture in videos posted online.
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HENDERSON: When the 737 MAX returns to service, I would absolutely put my family on this airplane.
SCHAPER: But reactions to the videos are mixed, and some comments in social media forums where the videos are posted suggest many people aren't buying it.
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: I think Boeing needs a come-to-Jesus moment, and I haven't seen it happen yet.
SCHAPER: Christine Negroni is an aviation writer and author of a book about plane crash investigations called "The Crash Detectives." She points to how Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has struggled to answer key questions about what the company knew about the MAX's problems before the crashes, and she's concerned that he and other company officials still won't acknowledge deeper and systemic problems inside the company.
NEGRONI: Boeing's in a pickle, and Boeing needs to recognize it's in a pickle. And that might be the hardest part. You know, I said it's a come-to-Jesus moment. It's a, do you recognize you're a sinner, and what are you going to do to fix it?
SCHAPER: Boeing still can likely restore its reputation as a strong and trusted brand if it takes the right steps soon, but time may be running out. The airplane manufacturer not only has to address its problems but also the public perceptions of how it handles them as it hopes to win regulators' approval to begin flying passengers on the 737 MAX again early next year.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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