787: Worry Shifts to Consumer Confidence About Carriers

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The analysis of fires on Boeing Co.’s (NYSE: BA) 787 has shifted from what they mean to aircraft sales onto carriers and the confidence those carriers have in its safety record as they seek new long-haul aircraft. The new focus is about whether consumers will shy away from boarding the 787 on which Boeing has staked much of its financial future. The anxiety is real and has even been understated. No amount of marketing by airlines can solve that soon.

Consumer confidence in travel is tricky and has been fickle. This is most evident in car sales. Recalls of automobiles labeled as dangerous because of one flaw or another have undermined the success of cars from the old General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) Chevy Corvair to the the brand new Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) RAV 4, which the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave a “poor” grade its “front small overlap” test. Buyers shy away from autos they believe may have safety problems to those that have received better marks. And why not, in a market in which there are so many options?

The 787 is a plane that fliers can avoid, although the process would be more difficult than with cars. Carriers that use the 787 for overseas flights eventually may not have other planes in service for those routes. This leaves the option of shifting to airlines using older planes that have not had well-publicized safety trouble. Consumers will find it challenging to make these kind of arrangements. However, fear, whether or not rational, may be the most powerful motivation of fliers.

The most substantial trouble with the 787 is that bad news about issues with the plane has gone on for years. This dates back more than half a decade to a time when Boeing had problems with parts used to assemble the plane. Most of these parts came from Boeing’s suppliers. The 787 then had issues with test flight success. As these issues played out in the press, flier confidence likely eroded with each new revelation. This point is essential to consumer confidence in the aircraft. Battery fires are the most recent in a line of other bad publicity.

The new news about a fire on a 787 parked at Heathrow has been described by experts as having nothing to do with past battery problems. The press has speculated about whether fliers will believe these statements. However, the weight of solving the consumers’ confidence burden has begun to shift to carriers that have bought the plane. Boeing’s reputation, at least as far as the 787 is concerned, has been ruined. Thus, airlines will have to make the case that they can operate the 787 safely. But the public does not care about which company assumes the task of this promotion. It only cares about whether the 787 can ever flown safely at all.

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