Tuesday, June 18, 2019

What's In A Name?

When your product bombs in the marketplace, change the name!

Boeing has a real problem on its hands.   The re-designed 737 Max now has a reputation of  crashing and killing all of its occupants - a slight handicap for airlines when trying to sell seats.  Instead of selling smoking or non-smoking seats (remember that?), these days airlines are now asking if you want "fiery death or no fiery death?"

One online news article opines that Boeing is thinking of maybe changing the name of the airplane to eliminate the "dirty halo" effect that 737 MAX now has. Suggestions are aplenty, including the "Boeing Nocrash" and the "Trust-me-you-won't-die 737" models.

Of course, this is not the first time the 737 has had this issue.  It is an old plane design, and early on it its lifetime, it had a vertical stabilizer issue (yaw damper) that apparently caused a number of crashes and near-crash incidents.  Boeing famously defended its design back then and claimed pilot error, then quietly fixed the problem.   Sounds familiar?

But this isn't the first time a company has resorted to name-changes to try to shed their product of a poor reputation.   When GM introduced the Vega, it turned from triumph to disaster within a year or two.  Vaunted as the "Car of the Year" it turned out to be poorly designed and poorly built.  Most died before they hit 80,000 miles when the engines overheated and warped the head.   Fenders rusted out within a year or two.  It was a poorly made car.

GM tried to stem the tide by calling the engines "Durabuilt" - as if changing the name of the engine and offering a 50,000 mile warranty would change people's minds (most failed, as my parents' did, at about 70,000 miles, making the warranty worthless).  By the way, BMW went to the same technology as the Vega - using high-tectate silica in the 5-series V-8's of the 1990's.  Many failed at about 70,000 miles as the high-sulfur gas in America caused cylinder-wall erosion.  Owners were offered pro-rated short blocks as a partial solution.  Same shit, different marque.

But the damage was done, and GM's reputation for quality was in the toilet for years to come.  It didn't help any that some subsequent products, such as the Chevy Citation had similar reputations for poor quality.  Ironically, the follow-on to the Vega, the Chevy Cavalier, was, by all accounts, a stout little car, if not quite up to Japanese quality standards. 

GM "solved" the Vega problem by renaming it the Monza.  It was basically the same car, with slightly different sheetmetal (except the 2+2 coupe, which was radically different).  They eventually gave up on the Durabuilt engine entirely, switching over to the "Iron Duke" engine of 1962 Chevy Nova fame.  Once the rust problems were worked out and the engine replaced, it was not a bad little car, but again, not up to par with Japanese quality.

The problem with these name changes is that they work, but then again, they don't.   People do realize that the Monza they are buying is a re-badged Vega.  They also realize the "MD-11" they are flying on is just an updated version of the DC-10 that had a spotty crash history.   People still flew on them.  Despite the cries of "If it's not a Boeing, I'm not going!" after some pretty spectacular Airbus crashes, people are pretty much like cattle - and the Jetway is the modern chute to the slaughterhouse.   Moo!

So Boeing will likely rename the planes and people will realize they are the same damn airplane and fly on them anyway.  Few, if any, are going to cancel their vacation plans or business trips until a plane to their liking comes along.   And quite frankly, you are still more likely to die from pilot error than from  manufacturing defect, in any airplane these days.  And in fact, the problem for the 737 MAX wasn't entirely a design flaw, but a lack of pilot training.

But like with GM, the lingering effects of this will be felt for a long time.  Too bad, too.  Boeing was on a roll there for a while.