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How would Boeing convince skittish passengers it’s safe to fly again?

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg made a bold promise to travelers Thursday.

When the grounded Boeing 737 Max planes return to the skies after a software fix due within weeks, they will be “among the safest planes ever to fly,” he said.

“We remain confident in the fundamental safety of the 737 Max,” Muilenburg said in a video accepting blame for Boeing’s role in two fatal Max 8 crashes in five months.

Skittish travelers will likely need more convincing, presenting a major challenge to airlines including Southwest, American and United when the planes return to their flight schedules.

Already, some are questioning Boeing’s confidence in the plane.

“737 Max is a super safe aircraft as long as it’s on the ground,” one Twitter user responded after Muilenburg posted a snippet of his video Thursday. 

We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 accidents and are relentlessly focused on safety to ensure tragedies like this never happen again.

Watch the full video here: http://www.boeing.com/commercial/737max/737-max-update.page#/message … 

Another said, “I won’t ride in a plane that requires special software to keep it from stalling.” An anti-stalling system has been implicated in both crashes.  

Airlines won’t talk about their marketing plans for reintroducing the Max since there is no timeline for its return given the ongoing crash investigations and the software fix, which requires the blessing of the Federal Aviation Administration and additional pilot training. And on Friday, not unexpectedly, Boeing said it is temporarily slowing the production of its 737 line.

There’s a lot of work ahead to convince travelers the plane is safe, since 737 Max has become a household word and is tainted in so many travelers’ minds.

No carrier is more aware of the looming challenge than Ethiopian Airlines, though the concern among its customers will be magnified given the March 10 Max 8 crash that killed 157.

“You can imagine the stigma that will be attached to that airplane,” Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam said in an interview with Bloomberg News after the preliminary crash report was released Thursday.

He told Bloomberg the airline will need to convince pilots and customers before resuming use of the aircraft, or confirming its order with Boeing for additional Max 8s.

The U.S. carriers that fly the 737 Max — Southwest, American and United — have spent the past few weeks reassuring skittish passengers that, yes, their Boeing 737 Max planes are grounded.

No, that’s not a Max 8 or Max 9, you’re on, they say to passengers firing off questions on Twitter and Facebook about the aircraft. It’s a Boeing 737-800 or 737-900, different models.

How they flip the script when the plane is back in their fleets, explaining why it’s back and reliable, will be key to winning travelers’ confidence, experts say.

There are no quick fixes, said Michael Meath, professor of public relations and interim chair of public relations at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. 

“Even if everybody comes out and says, ‘Hey, we got the fix. It’s all good. We’ve tested it. Everybody’s happy, we’re good to go,’ It’s going to take time,” he said. “When you damage a reputation like that, it takes time to build it back up.”

The best way to do that, he said, is with “good, honest straightforward communicaiton.”

What won’t work, Meath said: a full-page newspaper or a slick video featuring an airline CEO on a 737 Max “walking up the aisle, leaning on a first-class seat, to show how safe they are.”

Meath said videos showing Max 8 pilot training and other behind-the-scenes steps the airlines took could be a hit, as well as statistics on what measures airlines took to ensure the Max planes are safe.

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said the airline is likely to continue to feature its pilots’ experience to reassure passengers.

“Once the aircraft is cleared to fly again, American will continue to look at ways to reiterate to our customers that our pilots are the best in the business and would never fly an unsafe aircraft,” he said.

At a news conference following a Boeing event in Seattle a week ago, where the aircraft manufacturer showed off the software fixes to pilots and airline officials, an American pilot was asked when passengers will know it’s safe to fly the 737 Max.

“I think when they see our pilots are confident getting into the aircraft they will follow us,” Roddy Guthrie, a 737 fleet captain, said.

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