Once Again, Boeing Confronts a Crisis

Thom Weidlich 01.18.24


Airplane-making giant Boeing Co. is in the spotlight once again because of a crisis with its 737 Max. On Jan. 5, a “door plug” blew out midair on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, leaving a hole in the fuselage. Thankfully, no passengers were hurt. But for crisis communicators, it’s a lesson in not learning from your crisis lessons.

No, this isn’t Boeing’s first rodeo. Famously, the 737 Max had two crashes, in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019, that killed nearly 350 people. The company was roundly criticized for deflecting blame until it just couldn’t anymore. It turned out it knew about a software glitch largely believed to have caused the accidents. The company then made statements amounting to “we’ll do better.”

So, here we are again. The point: If you’re caught up in a monumental crisis of your own making and you promise to do better, follow through and do better. Boeing apparently hasn’t and is paying the price (for one thing, its stock tumbled 8 percent on Tuesday).

Finance Focus

Frankly, we’re surprised that little of the reporting includes a theme that was big back in 2019: that Boeing’s woes stem from transitioning, especially after its takeover of McDonnell Douglas, from an engineering firm to a firm focused on its finances.

With each crisis (it’s also had problems with its 787 Dreamliner) Boeing keeps saying it will emphasize engineering, and then another problem crops up. And another. Just yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had to switch planes when leaving Switzerland because his Boeing plane developed a critical malfunction related to an oxygen leak.

Boeing has both communications and operational problems, mostly the latter. Which isn’t to say it hasn’t made comms efforts in response to the Alaska Airlines incident. CEO Dave Calhoun gave a speech at a staff meeting during which he teared up while talking about what would have happened had anyone been sitting near the blast (he also did a CNBC interview).

‘Right Balance’

The staff talk garnered some attention and some praise. “Calhoun appeared to strike the right balance with a level of restrained emotion that ought to allow his message — that ‘every detail matters’ when it comes to building planes — to sink in and convince investors and customers that the company is taking the quality-control crisis seriously,” Bloomberg columnist Sarah Greene Carmichael wrote.

Video from that talk can be found on a Boeing website page dedicated to the Alaska Airlines incident. Launching that page was a smart move as it shows the company trying to be transparent. It has a slew of statements the company has issued since Jan. 5.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which immediately grounded 171 of the 737 Max 9s, has launched what is sure to be a lengthy probe into Boeing’s 737 Max production. The company will have many more opportunities to speak out on the matter.

Photo Credit: Boeing

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