U.S. fliers less familiar with Boeing 737 MAX crashes two years on, but wary when reminded: Reuters/Ipsos poll

FILE PHOTO: People depart a Boeing 737 Max airplane at Dallas Fort Worth Airport following a media flight to Tulsa
FILE PHOTO: People depart a Boeing 737 Max airplane at Dallas Fort Worth Airport following a media flight to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in Dallas, Texas, U.S., December 2, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

December 28, 2020

By Chris Kahn and Tracy Rucinski

NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) – With the passage of time, Americans are less familiar with two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes, but if they are made aware of those disasters, more than half say they would probably avoid the aircraft, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll.

The poll results, released on Dec. 28, a day before the 737 MAX resumes commercial flights in the United States, found that 39% of adults were familiar with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 versus about half in a previous poll.

Of those respondents, 73% correctly identified Boeing as the maker of the aircraft involved in the crashes, down from 82% who said the same in the poll that ran in May 2019.

However, when respondents were told about the aircraft’s safety issues 57% said they were not likely to fly in a Boeing 737 MAX, while 37% say they would be likely to fly in it once it has been in the air for six months or more.

“We continue to work closely with global regulators and our customers to support the safe return of the fleet to service around the world,” a Boeing spokesman said in response to the poll.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lifted a 20-month safety ban on Nov. 18 after approving design changes by Boeing to address systems that played a role in both crashes, which killed a total of 346 people. All airlines must complete the mandated safety changes and new pilot training before taking passengers.

American Airlines is set to relaunch passenger flights on Tuesday between Miami and New York and plans to gradually reintroduce its 737 MAX fleet.

The airline said it would re-book customers who do not feel comfortable about the aircraft.

“No one has to go on the MAX if they don’t want to, but if you want to, it’s there,” American’s Chief Operating Officer David Seymour said at a 737 MAX media event on Dec. 2.

PANDEMIC TRAVEL

Boeing’s 737 MAX is making its comeback at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has thrust the industry into its worst crisis, with airlines parking hundreds of jets as demand hovers around 30% of levels in 2019.

When the 737 MAX was grounded, U.S. airlines had to cancel flights because they lacked the aircraft to meet demand, adding to Boeing’s financial liability.

Now airlines are deferring jet deliveries and do not expect a robust rebound until COVID-19 vaccines are widely available.

The poll suggests that airline travel will recover pre-pandemic rates once the health crisis subsides and that travelers still consider ticket prices the most important factor when choosing a flight, followed by airlines’ measures to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus.

When buying a plane ticket, 41% said ticket price was most important and 24% said COVID-19 safety measures such as whether airlines are blocking middle seats.

Only 3% said the aircraft model was most important.

When asked how they planned to travel “when the coronavirus pandemic ends,” 10% said they would travel for personal reasons at least once a month by plane and 34% said they would travel at least once a year, similar to their reported travel habits before the pandemic.

The poll showed similar trends for work travel, a driver of airline revenues – 7% said they would fly at least once a month, while 17% said they expected to travel at least a few times per year.

The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 3 percentage points.

Of the other U.S. carriers that owned the 737 MAX before its grounding, United Airlines plans to fly the jet again in February and Southwest Airlines – the world’s largest 737 MAX operator – in the second quarter of 2021.

Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes, Brazil’s largest airline, became the first carrier to restart 737 MAX flights this month, followed by Grupo Aeromexico.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski and Chris Kahn; editing by Grant McCool)