If you’ve flown anywhere in the past few decades, chances are you’ve been on a Boeing 737. The jet has been one of the best-selling planes on the market since it came into service in the late 1960s. Yet the newest model, the 737 MAX, has become the subject of intense scrutiny.
After a pair of high-profile fatal crashes, Boeing has found itself under the microscope not just for a number of questions about the plane’s production, but also for how they’ve communicated and managed their crisis response — all of which has cost them billions of dollars.
How did one of the oldest and largest powerhouses in global aviation get to this point, what mistakes were made along the way, and what does the future hold for Boeing?
The 737 family has been the gold standard in the short to medium route market for years, and while this market has many competitors, none have been as fierce as the European manufacturer Airbus. In its newest model, Boeing installed a new system, known as MCAS that would, in theory, allow the newly designed 737 MAX to handle like the older models, thus reducing training costs for pilots.
Yet, with the urgency to keep up with the Airbus A320neo, Boeing decided to rush the development of this software. The result was a flawed mechanism that did not respond to pilot inputs when falsely activated, and instead forced the plane into an uncontrollable dive. To make matters worse, Boeing only informed and educated pilots of this change through an extremely limited training module administered via iPads. Ultimately, their carelessness would prove disastrous.
On October 29th, 2018, Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 — a 737 MAX — plunged into the Java Sea 12 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. As is standard procedure after this type of accident, Boeing released a statement that they were “deeply saddened” by the news and asserted that passenger and crew safety was their “top priority”. While there were questions about a plane crashing in its first year of service, the media was quick to point out the lackluster safety record of Lion Air.
But five months later, another 737 MAX crashed. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed 6 minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board. When similarities between the Lion Air crash gained attention, Boeing again released a statement saying they were saddened and would dispatch a team “to the crash site to provide technical assistance.” In the days following, all models of the MAX were grounded and Boeing continued to poorly message that they were assisting and cooperating in the investigation. But by now, control of the story was all but lost.
Typically, a plane crash receives a large amount of media coverage, but fades away with the news cycle. However, in the case of the 737 MAX, the media was pouncing on the idea that Boeing was producing an unsafe plane. While Boeing continued to release short statements on their official Twitter account, the negative attention was mounting at an impossible rate. In poor fashion, they defaulted to repeatedly asserting that they were “saddened” by the events — statements that were roundly perceived as insincere and unapologetic. Boeing was slow to offer any kind of formal or personalized response, waiting nearly a month to release an official statement from CEO Dennis Muilenburg.
Public opinion had shifted. 53% of American adults were saying they wouldn’t fly on the 737 MAX, pilots around the world began to speak up with their complaints, and major Boeing customers like Southwest soon became “frustrated” with the grounding and its impact on business. As the press continued to surface degrading stories, Boeing’s weak and wavering responses created a perception in the media that they were trying to avoid the topic or deflect blame instead of being open about the plane’s issues, resulting in a lasting public distrust.
However, not all hope is lost. Boeing has begun to take a more proactive approach with Muilenburg saying he would put his own family in the 737 MAX “without hesitation” and Boeing offering $100 million to families of the victims.
Additionally, the public is slowly putting its trust back in the MAX, with a recent poll by the Wall Street Journal showing that 37% of respondents would get back on the MAX if it were recertified by the FAA, with 36% having no opinion. While Boeing did not follow their strong performance at the 2017 Paris Air Show, instead being outsold at the 2019 show by Airbus, the event was still, on balance, a success for Boeing. Several models, including the 737 MAX, received some of their first orders since March, renewing confidence in the brand. It will take time to recover from the $3 billion loss this past quarter, but Boeing has hope for the future.
In a trust-driven industry, a lack of communication and transparency can be detrimental. Boeing decided to stay quiet when they were under constant fire from all angles in the media, a mistake that contributed to lost business and a damaged reputation. Though Boeing’s response options were limited at the time, they still had the opportunity to aggressively message their strong safety record as a company.
While Boeing’s relationship with airlines will likely recover, their public image will require ongoing work. With 43% of participants in a recent Reuters poll being able to identify by name the model of the plane in the crash, there is the potential for a lasting effect of consumers associating the MAX with being unsafe. Boeing must continue to make a very vocal and conscientious effort to promote the safety of the plane and emphasize any improvements they make. Whether it’s flying a plane full of executives for the first flight once recertified or offering a “full disclosure” on the plane’s fixes, Boeing must continue to invest not just in their tech, but also their reputation and the perception of their products. Hopefully, the aviation giant will rise to the occasion.
Research assistance provided by Jackson Casillas.