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What Happens When an Air Travel Brand Becomes Synonymous With Disaster

Even if Boeing can assure safety on the plane, the bigger issue for the company might now be one of perception.
The Boeing 737 Max 8 is pictured on a mural on the side of the Boeing Renton Factory on March 11th, 2019, in Renton, Washington.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 is pictured on a mural on the side of the Boeing Renton Factory on March 11th, 2019, in Renton, Washington.

In the last year, two of Boeing's aircraft have gone down in fatal crashes. Since the second plane went down on March 10th, the massive multinational company's name has been featured in front-page news around the world, alongside photos of wreckage from the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Boeing is now being called upon to answer tough questions about the safety of its planes. The same model, the 737 Max 8, was involved in both crashes, and, as investigators study the flights, aviation regulators around the world have grounded the plane in question.

Boeing is expected to announce a software update that might enhance safety on the 737 Max. But even if it can assure safety on the plane, the bigger issue for the company might now be one of perception. In the last two decades, the fate of two other air travel brands shows that, in an industry that relies on passengers feeling safe, any connection between a brand name and disaster can sink a company's fortunes.

In 2014, two Malaysia Airlines flights went down. One disappeared over the Indian Ocean, in an incident still not fully understood. The other was brought down over Ukraine, hit by a missile believed to have been fired by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. Even at the time, there was little evidence that Malaysia Airlines was at fault in either crash. But that was not enough to convince passengers that the airline was safe. When the first plane disappeared in March of that year, customers abandoned the airline en masse; sales in China, one of the most important markets for an Asian airline, fell by 60 percent. After the second crash four months later, the company went into a free-fall of its own. To save it from collapse, the Malaysian government nationalized the airline—maintaining an airline was a point of a pride for the country. Today, the airline still flies, but it has massively reduced its long-distance service, essentially converting back to a regional carrier. Its financial health remains murky.

In 2000, a single fiery crash was enough to tarnish the legacy of one of the world's most famous aircraft: the Concorde jet. Starting in 1976, the Concorde, one of the only two supersonic jet models ever in commercial service, flew passengers around the world at over twice the speed of sound. (One jet made a record trip from New York to London in about two hours.) Even though the plane's speed had always made some passengers nervous, the jet maintained a stellar safety record—until 2000. In July of that year, in France, a Concorde's engine caught fire as it sped down the runway. The plane crashed moments after leaving the tarmac, careening into a small hotel in a suburb of Paris, killing everyone on board and four people on the ground. Investigators attributed the crash to a piece of metal that had been left on the runway, which, when it slashed the tire, caused rubber to fly into the jet's engine. The jet itself seemed free of blame, but the connection between Concorde and catastrophe never went away: As passenger numbers plummeted, the two airlines that flew Concorde, Air France and British Airways, gave up supersonic flight. The last Concorde was grounded in 2003.

Today, to avoid the same fate as the Concorde, Boeing will need to find a way to prevent its name from becoming synonymous with calamity in the minds of potential passengers. (The battle may prove even more difficult for the aerospace company than Malaysia Airlines or Concorde: Though investigations are ongoing, it seems possible that Boeing might bear some fault in the crashes.) On Wednesday, the New York Times analyzed how Boeing has navigated its public relations strategy since the second crash, writing that "to many observers, Boeing appeared to be caught flat-footed by the growing public outcry." According to the Times, the company is now leaning on the services of Sard Verbinnen, a New York-based crisis communications firm, as it attempts to avoid public relations ruin.