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Should Boeing Change the Name of the 737 Max to Put Passengers at Ease?

Brian Sumers
Should Boeing Change the Name of the 737 Max to Put Passengers at Ease?

An obscure Twitter account called Woodys Aeroimages earlier this week posted a picture of one of Ryanair’s high-capacity Boeing 737 Max jets. Ordinarily, this would have intrigued only aviation enthusiasts, but it went viral because of a slight change in wording between the passenger boarding door and the aircraft’s nose.

On earlier jets, the script had read “737 MAX,” according to the account. But on this plane, painters had written, Boeing 737-8200. As the aviation trade publication Flight Global noted, the 737-8200 is an official name for the 200-seat Max variant Ryanair ordered, but the internet picked up on the photograph as evidence Boeing or Ryanair might be close to dropping the Max name.

It was probably overblown. In an earnings call Tuesday, Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary said the airline hasn’t changed how it references the airplane, and he added the company doesn’t usually paint model numbers on its planes at all. He seemed confused by the episode. “I don’t know where the pictures came from, nothing to do with us,” he said.

He probably should not have been surprised at the drama. As Ryanair and other airlines have learned, nothing Max-related is so simple. The picture reignited questions about whether Boeing should change the name of an aircraft that crashed twice in a five-month period, almost certainly because of faulty software. Some travelers are skittish, and many have said they may not want to fly the Max when it returns, probably late this year or sometime in 2020, after software fixes are complete.

Many airline insiders insist it’s absurd to rename an airplane that essentially will be the same, just with updated — and safer — software systems. They also say passengers, who they acknowledge now may be nervous, will return if the price is right. As O’Leary put it Tuesday, “We don’t believe once the aircraft are back flying, there will be any customer issue, perception issue or lack of confidence.”

Many business and branding experts see it differently. They say the tenets of marketing suggest the airplane must take a new name even if the jet is mostly the same. Some say they’re shocked Boeing hasn’t started rebranding.

“There is not question in my mind they should be rebranding it,” said David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “If it is improved, call it is something different. Don’t hide from it. It gives people confidence that the airplane is changed.”

Is Boeing Interested?

So far, Boeing has given little indication it will change the airplane’s name, though in public statements company officials have left the opportunity open.

“We remain open minded to all input from customers and other stakeholders, but have no plans to change the name of the 737 Max,” a Boeing spokesman said in an email.

There is some question about whether Boeing must make the call, or whether airlines can tweak the name if the manufacturer does not. Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Skift Airline Weekly, called “Max” a marketing term that airlines could drop. He likened it to the Airbus A350XWB (for extra wide-body) or Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Some airlines use XWB and Dreamliner in communications to customers while others do not.

Unnikrishnan said that rather than calling the aircraft Boeing 737 Max 8, an airline probably could refer to it as a Boeing 737-8, without the manufacturer’s blessing. In June, when International Airlines Group, owner of British Airways, signed a letter of intent for 200 aircraft, its release mentioned the 737-8 and 737-10, but did not include the word “Max.”

However, Richard Aboulafia a vice president at Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy, said it may not be so simple. He said in this case, Max is likely part of the airplane’s official name, making it tough for an airline to alter it.

“Airlines would have a hard time changing names on their own,” he said in an email. ”There’s some latitude in marketing campaigns — the MD-80 was the Super 80 in [American Airlines’] parlance for years — but ultimately official documentation, and things like passenger safety cards, would still follow the official designation.”

It’s not clear how much airlines are pushing for a change. In an email, a Southwest Airlines spokesman said: “There are no efforts on our part to rebrand the aircraft.” An American Airlines spokeswoman gave a similar comment, adding that the decision to change the aircraft’s name is Boeing’s call, not the carrier’s.

Airplanes have been renamed many times in past three decades but usually because the programs were sold, not because the public lost confidence. Mostly recently, Airbus renamed the Bombardier C Series when it acquired it last year. The airplane, once the CS100 and 300, is now the Airbus A220.

If Boeing goes for a name change, many observers expect it’ll stay simple. Most obvious is the construction used by International Airlines Group, with 737-7, 737-8, 737-9 and 737-10. Boeing uses similar model numbers for its 787 family.

“It might be easy for them to just drop the ‘Max’ and go with numbers alone,” Aboulafia said.

Branding Experts Weigh In

While Boeing erred with its Max software, a misstep company executives finally acknowledged last month, the company is still known for its methodical planning. It’s a company dominated by engineers, who often spend years working on what they believe is the perfect solution.

That’s fine for building airplanes, but as crisis management consultants point out, it’s not such a strong strategy for public relations. Branding experts typically suggest executives apologize quickly and try to move on.

Because Boeing waited so long to take full responsibility, the manufacturer’s brand may have suffered even more than it otherwise might have, experts said.

“The reputational impact was as severe as I have seen in a career,” said Tripp Donnelly, founder and CEO of REQ, a marketing and brand management company.

Given the hit, Donnelly and other marketing experts said they see Boeing’s situation as a no-brainer. The Max brand is tarnished, they say, and Boeing must change its name, regardless of whether it is the same aircraft. They point to surveys like one Barclays conducted in May, which concluded nearly half of flyers in Europe and the United States and Europe would avoid the airplane for a year or more.

“I am quite surprised they haven’t done it yet,” Wharton’s Reibstein said. “They should announce they have abandoned the airplane and they are starting a new one. It can be exactly the same but with no flaws.”

Reibstein acknowledged the press would treat the decision with skepticism, pointing out Boeing changed nothing but the name. But he said it doesn’t matter.

“The press will be all over it, and they will expose it, but Boeing should probably do it,” he said. “In terms of consumer perception, I think it is really critical.”

If done right, he said, a name change can influence what passengers think of a brand. The best recent example in aviation, he said, was probably ValuJet, which changed its name to Air Tran after a 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades. Over the next 15 years, Air Tran became a trusted airline brand, and Southwest acquired it in 2011.

One reason the ValuJet rebranding worked is because the airline changed its safety culture along with its name.

In Boeing’s case, Donnelly said Boeing must combine its rebranding with an educational campaign that shows consumers this is a new and safer airplane. Simply changing its name, he said, would not be enough.

“You have to articulate that you made substantial corrective changes to the avionics software,” Donnelly said. “If you articulate it well enough, there can be a path to rebrand.”

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