After two crashes that killed 346 people in just over six months, the Boeing 737 Max aircraft is currently the most infamous plane in the world. By March, all 385 of the 737 Max planes that Boeing had ever delivered to customers had been grounded globally, along with more than 40 planes that the company had built since the accidents. The whole affair was made worse by a series of apparent mistakes and suppressed details within Boeing, arising from the plane’s unusual design. It hinged on a software system that compensated for aerodynamic changes in the basic, decades-old 737 design so that the aircraft could use larger, more efficient engines.
Boeing has endured a lot of justified criticism for its role in the crashes. It’s also received a lot of unsolicited advice. Perhaps most famously, President Donald Trump tweeted in April, “What do I know about branding, maybe nothing (but I did become President!), but if I were Boeing, I would FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name.” That advice might or might not be good for Boeing, but as recently as last week there was speculation that the company might be open to renaming the plane. Both CNN and Time reported that Boeing’s CFO, Greg Smith, had said the company was “open-minded” about the idea.
But speaking this morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, said he has no plans to rebrand the aircraft. “I don’t see a need to change the name of the airplane,” Muilenburg said. “We’re not focused on branding and marketing. We’re focused on safety.”
The chief executive insisted that the company both regrets its role in the crashes and chastened itself in their aftermath. “We will always, always be sorry for the lives that have been lost,” Muilenburg said, repeating that the company has made a new commitment to humility as a result. “We’re devastated, and humbled,” he said, adding that the company is “very confident” that the software updates it is currently testing will make the aircraft “one of the safest airplanes to fly.”
Whether or not Boeing renames the plane, the 737 Max will enter a dubious club of aircraft known best for their disasters. That includes the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which was involved in 55 accidents, 32 of which were hull losses, that resulted in more than 1,200 fatalities. Most of the DC-10’s crashes resulted from the design of its cargo doors, which opened in a way that made decompression more likely in flight.
Air travel is still safer than any other means of transportation, but the public’s fears about it, along with the wide and harrowing publicity that results from even a single crash, can doom a plane’s reputation forever. Eventually, McDonnell Douglas replaced the DC-10 with a successor, the MD-11, a name change that was significant enough to distance the equipment from its history. But the 737 is the most successful commercial plane of all time, and Boeing is unlikely to abandon the designation. It’s a grave irony, at the very least, that the plane’s fate would be tied to the term max—a word that suggests height and greatness. No matter what it’s called, the 737 Max will never be remembered as the apogee of Boeing’s commercial-aviation success.