Lessons Learned from Boeing...Again

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The One Minute Risk Manager/Lessons Learned from Boeing...Again
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Boeing's Crisis Communication Response

One of the core elements of an ERM program is resiliency and the ability to deal with disruption.  The activation of a crisis communication team is essential when the issue involves an organization's reputation and the potential future financial implications that can follow.

The Boeing 737 Max saga began in October 2018, when a Lion Air jet plunged into the sea 13 minutes after takeoff.  Boeings initial communication was it was pilot error.  Five months later a second jet crashed in Ethiopia and led to the grounding of the Max jets for over three years.  While Boeing admitted there may have been an issue with its anti-stall system, they tied most of the issue to pilot training, as it was a new system.  The reality of a three year grounding shows that it was more than a training issue.  A report was released a year after the initial incident and led to the Boeing CEO being terminated shortly thereafter.  From a crisis communications standpoint, there was empathy, but very little accountability.

Fast forward to the most recent issue of the the Alaska Airlines flight in which a plug (door) blew off shortly after take-off and we see a much different response.  Unlike the previous incidents in which hundreds of lives were lost, no one died.  One of the factors is that that the plug blew off around 17,000 feet, so the pressure had not built up to the maximum level and that nobody was sitting in the seats closest to the blow out.

Unlike the prior situation, in which pilot error or training could be blamed, it was not an issue with the pilots.  Also, being a brand new aircraft, maintenance of the airframe would still fall under Boeing.  The response from the new CEO was significantly different.

From Reuters:  "CEO Dave Calhoun acknowledged errors by the U.S. planemaker as more than 170 jets remained grounded for a fourth day, telling staff the company would ensure an accident like the mid-air Alaska Airlines panel blowout "can never happen again."

Calhoun said he had been "shaken to the bone" by the accident, which rekindled pressure on Boeing over its troubled small plane family almost five years after a full-blown MAX safety crisis sparked by deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia."

While the above may not seem like a significant change, the response showed empathy, accountability, and leadership.  There will still be significant scrutiny on Boeing operations, but rather than taking months to take action like the past incident, they are taking action now.  

From an ERM perspective, Boeing has several different stakeholders it needs to communicate and address their concerns: ​

  • The flying public, who are again questioning the safety of the aircraft.
  • The airlines, which purchase their aircraft and could go to the competition.
  • The regulators, which can decide when the aircraft can fly again.
  • The shareholders, which will be holding the Board and the CEO accountable for what led up to the crisis and its aftermath.

The crisis also touches on all risk quadrants: Hazard, Operational, Financial, and Strategic.  All of these risk areas must also be addressed as it addresses this crisis; however, it is the reputational risk that can have the greatest long-term impact.  Since the most recent incident, I am finding news stories that are reporting on any issue involving a Boeing aircraft.  The focus of the headline is no longer the airline, but the manufacturer.

Boeing's crisis communication team should be in full operational mode and will be for quite some time if the past experience is any indication. 

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