Boeing Crash and Direction Backlash

Two months after the most recent Boeing 737 Max 8 crash, and more than 6 months after the first, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg finally made a comprehensive statement.

Perhaps the biggest misstep was in waiting so long in the first place. Perhaps it was stating that he somehow understood the pain and loss because it “affects him directly” as the leader of the company. “It feels personal,” he continued, after noting how sorry he felt for the families. 346 people died because of preventable oversights, and actively postponing plane software maintenance. It should feel personal.

While Muilenburg does apologize in the statement, on both behalf of Boeing and personally, and does acknowledge the loss of life, more than two months of near-silence have passed since the last accident, and it feels more than a little insincere. From a crisis standpoint, mainstream media have controlled the message, spread concern, and have largely been credited with getting the Max 8s grounded [something Boeing should have liked to take credit for]. At a personal level, it feels heartless. 346 people left behind futures, loved ones, and unfulfilled dreams and promises. No carefully manicured, emotionally managed statement does that justice when it comes as an afterthought.

346 people died because of preventable oversights. It should feel personal.

“We’re committed to the safety for the long run”, said the CEO of a company whose active neglect in addressing the Max 8 failures led to the death of 346 people. Boeing engineers allegedly discovered the issues with the 737 Max 8 technology “within several months” of the initial Max deliveries in May 2017. A “resolute” commitment to safety feels hard to accept as true. Pilots trained to skillfully maneuver an aircraft in emergency situations couldn’t overcome its persistent mechanical failures that, and I cannot stress this enough, were known to Boeing and not fixed.

And it almost couldn’t get worse.

Until Boeing did about the most tone-deaf thing a company could do. In the wake of information released about the faulty plane overriding skilled pilots’ attempts to take back their aircraft, information leaked ahead of the Paris airshow that its new 797 planes are projected to be single-pilot. They effectively eliminated an essential operational redundancy that could keep people alive in the event of future aircraft failures.

So to cut costs, they built a one-pilot cockpit. Allegedly, just one pilot needs to fly while a second “would be ground-based and be able to ‘monitor several aircraft’ at the same time.” Let’s break it down. Strap already overworked pilots with double the operational and flight procedures, and the need to actually fly the plane while managing checklists and flight flows. Task an unfortunate second pilot with ground duties, helping to triage an unknown number of other flights simultaneously while not actually being able to tangibly assist. What could go wrong.

In crisis, timing is everything. With the introduction of the 797 being as many as 10 years away, a few more months distance from the crashes and the FAA and NTSB investigations would have likely had a more receptive audience. Moreover, Boeing’s inability to manage the message and assuage consumer fear and accept early responsibility for preventable accidents has destroyed consumer confidence in its aircraft, as seen by continually falling stock prices. Once a golden child of the sunny skies has seen a fierce backlash to its engineering approach and consumer marketing and crisis response.

To parody an early slogan, “If it’s Boeing, I’m not going.”

Listen and watch the statement here, view the timeline of events, and share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @vandernickr.