The third in a series on the historical parallels and lessons that unite the groundings of the DC-10 and the 737 Max. Special thanks to Apryl Sullivan at Duke University for her research assistance.
The 737 Max was officially cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration to carry passengers again, ending a 20-month grounding after the loss of 346 lives, and costing tens of billions of dollars and severely damaging the credibility of one of the most strategically important companies on the planet.
The single-aisle jetliner returns 616 days after the FAA was the last major regulator to order the jet grounded, a grueling sprint to dissect the aircraft end-to-end and ensure the central contributor to crashes in 2018 and 2019 were designed out of the jet. With that sprint completed, what now awaits Boeing and the Max is a new marathon, one defined by damaged trust and an economic collapse without a modern parallel.
“Every next plane we deliver is an opportunity to rebuild our brand and regain trust,” wrote Boeing chief executive David Calhoun in a message to employees Wednesday. “Let’s continue moving forward, focusing on one detail at a time.”
Yet, it is this intersection of mistrust and recession brought on by a pandemic that will determine the future re-acceptance of the aircraft. Across 40 years of history, however, Boeing now enters territory once painfully familiar to its legacy company, McDonnell Douglas, with which it merged in the late 1990s. The Air Current has twice explored the significant historical parallels between the grounding of the 737 Max and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 — when American Airlines flight 191 crashed on May 25, 1979 near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, killing 273 people, the worst aviation disaster in U.S. history at the time.
The severity of the DC-10’s comparatively brief grounding pales in comparison to that of the 737 Max and the impact on its creator — more than an order of magnitude longer and many times more costly, some $20 billion and climbing. The DC-10 was returned to service after 37 days on the ground, but the post-grounding experience deserves more scrutiny. The DC-10 never recovered from that safety crisis in the spring of 1979, further damaged by two more entirely unrelated crashes later that same year in Mexico City and Antarctica.
In the year that followed the DC-10’s return, McDonnell stared down a crisis in public confidence in the aircraft, initially opting to say little publicly and, like Boeing in 2020, faced a sharp economic contraction and airline industry downturn that caused orders to dry up and a severe contraction its production of the trijet.
Last year, TAC was granted access to Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, which holds the multi-decade historical archives of J. Walter Thompson Company, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation’s longtime advertising agency. Inside the archive was a trove of documents, news clippings and advertisements crafted for the plane maker’s global public relations rehabilitation that followed the DC-10’s grounding.
The Air Current has reassembled the history of that attempted recovery, drawing on these archives, books authored at the time and even leaked diplomatic cables, illustrating the public’s reaction to the jet’s tarnished reputation and Douglas’s own missteps that offer a contemporary guide for Boeing as the 737 Max is reintroduced.
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