Jan 25, 2024 - Business

Boeing CEO embarks on "communications task" following Alaska Airlines incident

Illustration of a microphone combined with gold pilot wings

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Just five years after two crashes that killed 346 people, Boeing is back in the news due to manufacturing and safety concerns.

Why it matters: Unlike the 737 Max crisis of 2018-19, Boeing's leadership is prioritizing communication as it attempts to restore trust, rebuild its reputation and win back business after a door of an Alaska Airlines plane flew off during ascent on Jan. 5.

  • Yes, but: The bar for Boeing is low based on how the previous Max crisis was handled.

Flashback: In October 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed, killing all 189 passengers, and five months later an Ethiopian Airlines flight experienced a nearly identical crash, resulting in the death of 157 people.

  • Roughly one month after the second crash, then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg issued the first public apology, acknowledging that a software issue was to blame.
  • Up until that point, Muilenburg was viewed as muddling the message and shifting blame to the pilots and airlines, which did little to instill public confidence.
  • Ultimately, the company mishandled much of the public response, and it cost Muilenburg and several other executives their jobs.

Flash forward: Now, with new leadership and a new crisis, Boeing has taken a different approach.

  • Unlike in 2018-19, there were no fatalities because of the Alaska Airlines door incident and the problem was quickly identified as loose plug bolts and "installation issues" on the 737 MAX 9 aircraft.
  • Also unlike the previous incidents, this happened in the United States on a U.S. airline and was captured in real time by cellphone footage, which heightened media attention and online chatter.

Now, passengers are filing lawsuits and multiple airlines have grounded their 737 MAX 9 fleets, but the FAA recently provided a pathway for the 737 MAX 9 flights to resume.

Zoom in: Following the Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing has taken an inside-out approach to communications, often publishing internal speeches and memos.

  • In his remarks to employees — which were clipped and shared with the public — Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun applauded the Alaska crew, took responsibility for the issue and promised transparency and collaboration with regulators throughout the investigation process.
  • Calhoun hit these same talking points in an interview with CNBC but has not done a sit-down interview since — though he did speak to a gaggle of Capitol Hill reporters Wednesday.
  • "We have a communications task with all of our customers," Calhoun said. "... We're going to approach this, No. 1, acknowledging our mistake. We're going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way."

What they're saying: "Boeing seems to have learned its lesson, at least the lesson in how to communicate to the public about this. ... Calhoun said we're going to acknowledge our mistake — and that was something that was lacking after the previous incidents," Peter Robison, author of "Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing," told NPR.

  • Calhoun's "messaging has shown humility, transparency and full cooperation with regulators, and his approach could be a master class in what a company should do," says Deirdre Latour, founder of Rebellis Communications and former chief communications officer at GE.

Yes, but: While Boeing is regularly updating its website, Calhoun has since gone quiet, which is frustrating some of its airline customers (more on that below).

  • "From a reputation perspective, Boeing is in a deep hole and unfortunately, these concerns over quality issues will not be erased overnight," a former Boeing communications executive told Axios.
  • "They're going to have to come up with a very long-term strategy to try to repair the reputation — and strong communications alone will not fix it."

What to watch: More stakeholder engagement is coming.

  • Boeing leadership is meeting with U.S. senators to discuss the 737 MAX 9 grounding, plus the company is expected to report its quarterly earnings next week.
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