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Should Boeing rename the 737 Max?

Natasha Frost
An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked on the tarmac at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019.

Steven Udvar-Hazy, the founder and chairman of plane leasing giant Air Lease Corp., has a seemingly radical suggestion for Boeing: the 737 Max should never fly again.

Instead, the company should drop the Max from its name and market the plane, which has been grounded for ten months following two fatal crashes, by its numeric variant instead—the 737-8, for instance, or 737-10. “We’ve asked Boeing to get rid of that word Max,” Udvar-Hazy said last week at the Airline Economics aviation finance conference in Dublin, Ireland, according to a Reuters report. “I think that word Max should go down in the history books as a bad name for an aircraft.”

His words echo a suggestion made by US president Donald Trump on Twitter in April 2019: “What do I know about branding, maybe nothing (but I did become President!), but if I were Boeing, I would FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name.”

Would rebranding save the 737 Max—and put customers’ minds at rest? Already, airlines have begun to make contingency planes for spooked passengers who refuse to fly the Max. Speaking to Quartz last year, Derek Kerr, the CFO of American Airlines, promised travelers who didn’t want to fly on a Max could be rebooked onto another aircraft. “Over time, I hope that that goes away and people understand that this is a very safe and reliable plane,” he said. “But we’ll have to deal with some customers. There are some customers that have no idea what plane they’re on, there are some customers that know exactly what plane they’re on and what number plane it is. We’ll work through that as well.”

In a sense, it wouldn’t be a rebrand at all. The Max is not referenced anywhere on the official documentation submitted to regulators, which instead uses its numeric variant. The name change, introduced in 2016, was designed to differentiate a new iteration of 737s from its predecessor, the 737 Next Generation (commonly known as the NG). That’s why some airlines have quietly taken the plunge by themselves: Last July, photos circulated of a Max purchased by Ryanair, the European budget carrier, with “737-8200” painted on the plane’s exterior in the place of “737 Max.” The month before, the International Airlines Group, which owns airlines such as British Airways, Aer Lingus, and Iberia, announced that it would be adding a “mix of” around 200 “737-8 and 737-10 aircraft” to its fleet beginning in 2023. (These are all 737 Maxes.)

Boeing itself has been circumspect about a name change. In June, Dennis Muilenburg, the former Boeing CEO, said the company was not planning to rebrand the aircraft. “I don’t see a need to change the name of the airplane,” Muilenburg told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “We’re not focused on branding and marketing. We’re focused on safety.” The company’s recent leadership change may reveal new willingness to acquiesce to the demands of branding or marketing departments, however: In a previous role, David Calhoun, the new CEO, oversaw the VNU Group’s successful rebranding to Nielsen Co.

The manufacturer has entirely ceased the production of 737 Maxes on backorder until the plane has been cleared to fly by the FAA. Almost 500 aircrafts are currently grounded with no clear timeline for when they’ll be recertified. CNBC reported today the FAA may not sign off on the Max until June or July, months later than previously anticipated, causing Boeing shares to plunge.

Of course, another option remains on the table. Boeing could scrap the troubled jet altogether and develop an all-new replacement—leaving the door open to call it whatever it chooses.

 

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