Travelers hesitant to fly the Boeing 737 Max, survey finds

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, July 1, 2019.

Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

Travelers are concerned about the safety of the Boeing 737 Max and many will be hesitant to fly on it — even after regulators deem it safe, a survey released on Thursday found.

That could pose a challenge for airlines eager to put the public at ease when the planes reenter service after two fatal crashes. Regulators don’t expect to clear the planes until next year but have offered no firm timeline.

A fifth of respondents said they would fly the Max immediately after it is reintroduced into airline fleets, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey found. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they would wait at least six months before flying or never fly it, while most respondents said they would switch to another aircraft if they had the opportunity.

More than 300 Boeing 737 Max planes were in fleets worldwide at the time of the grounding in mid-March, but carriers have more than 4,000 on order.

Executives at U.S. carriers, including American and United, said they plan to fly the plane early on, a way to drum up confidence in the aircraft before it is fully reintegrated into fleets. U.S. carriers have taken the planes out of their schedules until early March as the grounding wears on.

Carriers have also said they will waive fees or work with travelers who are hesitant to fly on the plane and would rather to travel on another type of plane, but airlines routinely swap out aircraft so travelers don’t always get the plane they prefer.

Still, about half of respondents said they were unaware the planes are grounded.

“This could be a positive if passengers ultimately don’t care about the aircraft,” the bank said in its poll of 2,135 people. “However, it also could be a negative if fliers have an unexpected negative reaction upon boarding a 737 MAX flight.”

The two crashes — one in Indonesia in October 2018 and another in Ethiopia in March — claimed 346 lives.

Boeing has developed a software fix for the jetliners, its bestselling aircraft, but regulators haven’t yet signed off on that or on proposed changes to pilot training.

The FAA’s administrator, Steve Dickson, a former Delta pilot and executive, on Wednesday said he plans to fly the updated 737 Max and undergo the new training himself before he signs off on the jets.

— CNBC’s Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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