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How Boeing Plans To Convince Passengers To Re-Board The 737 Max

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After two deadly crashes of the Boeing 737 Max, the plane model has been grounded worldwide while Boeing works to fix engineering problems that led to the crashes. Even if they're able to do that, Boeing will then face an even bigger challenge. And that is convincing passengers and pilots alike to use the plane again.

A detailed internal marketing presentation given last week to airline executives shows exactly how the company plans to do that. The presentation was obtained by The New York Times, whose reporter David Gelles joins us now. Welcome.

DAVID GELLES: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So let's just start with this document that you've got. What exactly was it? And who was it prepared for?

GELLES: Last week, over three days, Boeing executives walked airlines through an internal presentation that the company compiled, essentially showing where public sentiment was regarding the Max and what plans Boeing has to try to convince the airlines, their employees and the public that the Max is still safe to fly. I got a hold of this yesterday in the midst of Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing, being fired.

CHANG: OK. And before we go into the details of this document, I just want to step back. Remind us - what are the challenges facing Boeing right now in trying to reintroduce this plane that's been at the center of so much controversy?

GELLES: The 737 Max is the most important plane in Boeing's product lineup. They've sold almost 5,000, and it represents, really, the key to the future of the company and many airlines. And then, just a year or so after this plane entered commercial service, two crashed within five months. It's been grounded since March. And regulators, airlines, lawmakers and the public are deeply, deeply worried about this plane and very skeptical that this plane is going to be safe to fly when it does return. Boeing is trying to make the case that it is.

CHANG: Right. Doesn't internal surveying show that - what? - some 40% of Americans are still really reluctant to board a 737 Max plane?

GELLES: This was the most amazing thing in this document in my mind. It showed that in surveys of thousands of fliers over the past several months, consistently between 44% and 40% of all travelers said that they would not be willing to get on a 737 Max. Now this is, again, Boeing's most popular plane. And there are about to be hundreds of these in airline fleets around the world. And yet, here we have nearly half of travelers saying they won't get on it.

CHANG: Now, you know, one thing that did strike me when I was looking through this presentation Boeing prepared were the details directed at various airline staff of - you know, about what they should do in case of a customer who publicly panics when they find out they're about to board a Max plane. Can you just go through the steps Boeing recommends airline staff should take if that scenario were to happen?

GELLES: This is another great slide in this document that showed this elaborate, essentially, spreadsheet of different scenarios that passengers might encounter as they prepare for a journey on the Max. It involves passengers starting to book a flight and realizing it's on the Max and then maybe taking to social media and say, I don't want to fly that Max. Boeing suggests that airline social media teams intervene there and try to convince people that the Max is safe. It involves scenarios in which passengers might be at the gate and express some reticence about getting onto the plane.

CHANG: Yeah.

GELLES: And it suggests that flight attendants and pilots might go out and talk to the passengers. And then they've prepared these 3-by-5-inch cards that they hope airline personnel will distribute to people that essentially make the case that the Max is safe. And in the most extreme cases, Boeing suggests that airline personnel turn to procedures that they use for in-flight medical emergencies to de-escalate the situation if it gets out of hand.

CHANG: Well, I mean, just to push back a little - why wouldn't Boeing have a presentation like this ready? I mean, isn't this the responsible thing for the company to do?

GELLES: I don't think there's any reason to dispute that. I think it's just worth noting that the Max remains months away from recertification. Two weeks ago, Steve Dickson, the head of the FAA, said that there was no timetable for the Max's return and it would not fly this year. Boeing still faces technical or procedural challenges in getting the plane certified by the FAA and other international regulators. And just last week, Boeing shut down its factory in Washington state, where it makes the Max - a recognition that there is simply no end in sight to this crisis.

CHANG: That is David Gelles, a business reporter for The New York Times. Thank you very much.

GELLES: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.