With Just 22 Words, This United Airlines Flight Attendant Brilliantly Explained What's at Stake With the Boeing 737 MAX

This article was originally published by Inc. on March 14, 2019. 

This is a story about fight attendants, airlines, and the Boeing 737 MAX--but it's also about who you really are and what your brand stands for.  

Earlier today, I thought I was done writing about the 737 MAX for the moment. I'd covered the airline workers' calls for it to be grounded temporarily, and then President Trump's decision to do just that in the wake of two fatal crashes.

Then I saw two other items that made me think it through again:

  1. Reports that Ethiopian Airlines is sending the "black box" from the 737 MAX that crashed on Sunday killing all 157 aboard to Europe rather than the U.S. It's what The Globe & Mail calls "the latest sign of the world's growing distrust of the United States on aviation safety issues." 
  2. A statement from Sara Nelson, head of the union representing 50,000 flight attendants at United Airlines and elsewhere, about the decision, finally, to ground the 737 MAX in the United States. Specifically, 22 key words from it:

"It is good news that the 737 MAX will now get the focus it needs to address the concerns of undetermined safety issues. We must focus on the needed fix, rather than the uncertainty of flight.  

"Lives must come first always. But a brand is at stake as well. And that brand is not just Boeing. It's America. What America means in international aviation and by extension in the larger world more generally--that we set the standard for safety, competence, and honesty in governance of aviation." [emphasis added]

That's interesting. Safety and lives come first. But brand comes second. I hadn't thought of it that way.

We don't know if there's anything wrong with the 737 MAX, of course; that's the point of grounding it during an investigation. It could well be the accidents themselves were just that: coincidental accidents. 

Boeing itself says that while it has "full confidence in the plane," it supports the decision to ground it "out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public."

I'm no expert in aerospace engineering, that's for sure. Once you get past "lift and thrust, faith and trust," you've pretty much exhausted my understanding of airplane physics and engineering.

But let's face it: people like me are the rule, not the exception.

When we fly, passengers expect safe planes and competent crews at a bare minimum. They rely on their faith that pilots, airlines, manufacturers--even governments--know what they're doing.

In other words, they rely on their reputations. Their brands.

If anything starts to creep into that and upset the balance, it's pretty much game over. As the Warren Buffett adage goes: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

The 737 MAX was being grounded all over the world. The United States had to act. As Nelson puts it, a brand was at stake.

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