Boeing’s unending PR crisis

When a crisis strikes, everything a company has built can feel at risk. Heads spin, stomachs turn, and panic ensues across every department. Employees are pulled away from their daily work and put into action with an all-hands-on-deck mentality. War rooms are formed and sleep is lost.

Yet ironically, most crises end the same. The news cycle dissipates in a day or two and the business maintains its health, while company leadership takes a deep breath and proclaims, “It’s not as bad as we thought.” In fact, the extra attention might have helped user growth.

Then there are the crises that check every box. The perfect storm. The DEFCON 1. The unthinkable—potentially business critical—meltdown. Unfortunately for Boeing, it has the latter on its hands, losing US$24 billion in market cap in the first 48 hours alone after a second 737 Max plane went down in five months.

Let’s be frank: It was a sensational event—and you can’t say that for all tragedies. But, having two planes of the same model go down in a five-month span, for the same reason, is without a doubt sensational. There was a massive loss of human life. The media cycle is currently barreling into week five, and to add insult to injury, President Trump is offering Boeing armchair expert advice in front of his nearly 60 million Twitter followers.

So, what happened?

On 29 October 2018, Lion Air flight 610, flying from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang, Indonesia, crashed 13 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. This marked the deadliest air accident involving any type of Boeing 737 model, not to mention the first accident featuring the Boeing 737 Max.

Mere months later, with the first tragedy fresh on everyone’s minds, on 10 March 2019, another Boeing 737 Max plane went down. Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, traveling from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six minutes after takeoff, claiming the lives of 157 people. This time, the global response was swift and unprecedented. Across the world, 737 Max planes were grounded, with the last holdout, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, following suit on 13 March.

And why is it still front-page news?

While this seems like a cold question to pose, consider the last tragedy that remained in the forefront of the news for more than a month. Now consider how many other horrific tragedies the thick-skinned media—and subsequently our thick-skinned society—shake off in less than 48 hours.

For starters, plane accidents drive clicks and views because they hit home. Many of us fly, and a lot of us fly regularly. Such an event resonates because it could be us, or a loved one, who falls victim to a rare airline crash.

Compounded with the relatability of a plane crash is a degree of justified anger directed at Boeing. After all, the same technical and mechanical problems on the same 737 Max model caused both accidents. While it’s irresponsible to definitively place all blame on Boeing for the second accident, it’s fair to ask if the crash was preventable. Pilot error is the root cause of an overwhelming majority of private and commercial aviation fatalities. Though that was not the case here, as investigations cleared both pilots of any wrongdoing. The New York Times recently went so far as to suggest the 737 Max models were rushed to completion due to an intense arms race with Boeing’s biggest competitor, Airbus.

It also doesn’t make for a swift media cycle when the issue isn’t fixed and the perception of risk is ongoing. Boeing has yet to recall the 737 Max planes or rush to fix the flight-control system that’s noted as the primary factor in both accidents. In fact, they’re still producing the 737 Max planes. Boeing is only cutting production from 53 to 43 aircraft per month until the planes are ungrounded, at which point they plan to ramp up production again.

Finally, 737 Max planes around the world are sitting idle in hangars and airports, causing mass delays and flight cancellations. This fact alone is newsworthy, but here, it serves as another aspect in the media’s and the public’s ongoing interest.

How can Boeing limit the damage from here?

To salvage what is left of the company’s reputation and stability, Boeing must aggressively confront the issue from both a technical and human standpoint.

On the technical side—and granted, this is easier said than done—it must fix the problem. It must fix the problem in a way that puts business and stockholder interests on the back burner in the short term to earn back passengers’ trust in the long term, leaving no room for anyone to question the company’s motives. Recall the planes, replace the faulty software, never again sell safety features as optional upgrades, develop a mandatory training module on said updated software, halt all production of the 737 Max model, and only restart production once the above measures are taken.

On the human side, don’t only fix the problem, do so loudly, transparently and compassionately. Provide constant updates to the public, open up to regulators, show a contrite face on prime time television, cleanly settle with affected families, and issue statements that don’t look like they were written by dozens of lawyers. Put simply: Be human.

While it is hard to believe right now, Boeing will survive this. But so will the legacies of these two heart-wrenching tragedies.

By Lane Kasselman for CW Observer

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