As the public faces of their respective airlines, United CEO Oscar Munoz and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker share a common problem: how to convince customers to fly on the 737 MAX again. Thus far, the two have taken different approaches.
Transparency + Empathy From Oscar Munoz
Munoz has labored to put customers at ease, noting that public trust must rebuilt:
Just because somebody says it’s safe, you as the flying public aren’t just going to get on the aircraft.
Perhaps this is an exercise in reverse psychology, but by focusing on the subjective opinions of the public, he is able to divert attention off the more difficult subjective question of whether the 737 MAX is actually airworthy.
But Munoz goes beyond even that. He has promised to be on the first flight and personally promised that no one who is uncomfortable will be forced to fly on the 737 MAX or lose the value of their ticket:
I pledge to be on our first flight, which may not sound like much to a lot of people. It’s important for us, not just because a regulatory agency, a manufacturer, or an airline says its safe. I think it’s important that as part of my ‘proof not promise’ mantra, that I be on the first flight
More importantly, we are going to make it incredibly transparent for our customers to know that when they book a flight if it is indeed on a MAX aircraft, they will absolutely know.
“If for some reason, if they get closer to their flight, and they are determined that they don’t feel comfortable, or safe, we will absolutely rebook them at no extra cost. It is that important to us that we don’t just assume that everybody is going to just jump back on that aircraft.
This statement was made earlier to day in the United Kingdom, as reported by Simple Flying. Munoz made a similar statement at the recent media day in Chicago last month.
Whenever he is asked about when the aircraft will return, he only emphasizes safety:
I think at this point we would have 80 to 100 flights that would be in the air. But, again, it’s just — the important part about that conversation is that aircraft will return safely. And that’s all we really care about. So, we await the FAA and the regulators to do their thing.
Unbridled Confidence From Doug Parker
Parker’s message has been focused less on customers and more toward Boeing and regulators.
Unlike Munoz, Parker has not frequently empathized with worries passengers may have about the 737 MAX. Rather, he has operated on the assumption that the 737 MAX is safe, always has been safe, and that American Airlines would not have ever operated it if it was not.
American has, as an unpublished policy, promised to re-accommodate uncomfortable passengers. A spokesperson told me:
We will take care of customers who are not comfortable flying on the Max. We will rebook them. The airline won’t charge those passengers the standard $200 fee for changing a ticket.
But Parker’s focus has been on the process. For example, he told employees that politics were at play in the re-certification process:
There is an absolute software fix that’s this close to being certified, but they’ve been saying that for a while. I think as much as anything now it may be politics as much as the true certification … safety issue. I don’t think the FAA wants to be alone in doing this.
And unlike Munoz, who has chosen not to directly confront Boeing publicly, Parker recently criticized Boeing for taking too long in a New York Times interview this week:
The F.A.A. has been very forceful in saying, “We will decide whether or not it’s safe.” They’ve been adamant about that, which I think is exactly the right stance to take. They have set certain conditions to make that assessment. Boeing doesn’t appear to be meeting the F.A.A.’s deadlines.
It’s not the F.A.A. changing the condition. It’s the manufacturer either setting too aggressive a view as to when they will have the conditions met, or not being able to deliver what they said they were going to deliver. Whatever the result, the F.A.A. is not changing their requests, but the aircraft still continues to slip in certification.
The implication is that this is a routine repair, not a monumental problem. In fact, he stressed that even after the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes, he never had any safety concerns “whatsoever” with the 737 MAX:
Absolutely. If we thought for a second that our airplanes with our pilots were unsafe, we would have grounded them ourselves. If we had any concerns whatsoever, if any of our pilots had any concerns whatsoever, I assure you they wouldn’t take the aircraft up.
He is also confident that Boeing will compensate American Airlines for the long delay:
They are early talks, even though it’s been going on a long time, primarily because you can’t assess the damages until you know how long the delays last. It’s not over. There’s nothing contentious about the talks, but also nothing is really progressing. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we need to get into more detail. What I feel very strongly about is that American Airlines customers and team members and shareholders have borne the pain of this, and that it should be Boeing’s shareholders that pay for it, not ours.
I don’t think I am cherry picking when I note that Munoz and Parker have taken different approaches to the 737 MAX. I’m not sure, actually, if one is better than the other. But both do share the same goal: getting the 737 MAX back in the air as soon as possible with confident pilots, flight attendants, and customers.