The DC-10, 737 Max and the struggle to polish a tarnished airplane

What really happened to McDonnell Douglas and the DC-10 after it returned to service following its 1979 grounding?

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The second in a series on the historical parallels and lessons that unite the groundings of the DC-10 and the 737 Max. Part three on McDonnell Douglas’s public relations campaign will publish shortly. Special thanks to Apryl Sullivan at Duke University for her research assistance.

In the year following the DC-10’s return to service after the crash of American Airlines 191, McDonnell Douglas was still reeling from the 37 day grounding of its trijet airliner.

The DC-10 crashed on May 25, 1979 just after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare International Airport after an engine broke free from the left wing. All 271 passengers and crew were killed along with two more people on the ground. To that point, it was the worst air disaster in U.S. history.

“And all hell broke loose,” according to Apollo 12 astronaut-turned-Douglas jet salesman, Pete Conrad in his posthumously-published memoir, Rocketman. “In one afternoon, the DC-10 went from the pinnacle of aerospace achievement to the symbol of corporate greed and recklessness.”

Related: Searching for 40-year old lessons for Boeing in the grounding of the DC-10

Immediately after the crash, Alitalia cancelled an order for six in favor of the Boeing 747. American, the jet’s original launch customer, cancelled options for three. Continental Airlines sold four to Federal Express and optioned four more. Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways International and Philippine Airlines all announced plans by the late spring of 1980 to remove large segments from their DC-10 fleets in favor of Boeing and Airbus jets, according to a New York Times accounting of the “pall” that still hung over aircraft.

And according to a diplomatic cable from Istanbul to the U.S. State Department, THY, now known as Turkish Airlines, conceded that “in light of the current controversy surrounding the DC-10 [the airline] feels it would not be able to justify purchase of that aircraft.”

By April 1980, McDonnell was cutting DC-10 production, following two more fatal DC-10 accidents at the end of 1979, both attributed to human error. The 41 it delivered in 1980 fell to 25 in 1981 and just 11 in 1982. “At least some of the sales have been lost because of the Chicago crash and its aftermath,” Sanford McDonnell, the corporation’s president told shareholders.

Photo courtesy: Geoffrey Thomas

By the summer of 1980, months after the DC-10 had been “cleared” by a blue-ribbon panel of aviation industry experts, Douglas reported that 10% of the population still had a “deep concern” over the DC-10 and 5% said they would not even fly it, according to a report in Advertising Age.

“The public memory was not short, and the situation was getting worse,” said Conrad in the The Sporty Game by John Newhouse. It is the definitive 1982 tale of the jetliner business after U.S. airline deregulation. Madison Avenue magazine captured the plane maker’s fundamental worry: “It is one of McDonnell Douglas’s biggest fears that the plane’s bad reputation could hamstring the acceptance of future models.”

McDonnell’s overt attempts at restoring the DC-10’s image only made things worse. “From a public-relations point of view, the Chicago affair was badly handled, according to airlines which fly the DC-10,” wrote Newhouse, who said the company’s PR attempts smacked of “too much defensiveness and too little initiative and unsolicited cooperation.”

Related: The world pulls the Andon Cord on the 737 Max

This history amplifies what is now at stake for Boeing. With public trust in the company severely damaged after twin 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, the perception of success or failure of the jet’s return to flying passengers next year lies predominantly outside of Boeing’s control. Those factors will decide the public re-acceptance of the aircraft, the ultimate success of the airplane and even Boeing’s strategic future as a company.

The Air Current continues its historical exploration of the grounded jets, separated by 40 years. 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 after the grounding. TAC has reassembled the history of the DC-10’s attempted recovery, drawing on these archives, books authored at the time and even leaked diplomatic cables to illustrate the ensuing global fallout from the jet’s grounding and what it means for Boeing in 2020.

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