Boeing 737 MAX crisis: Losing the narrative (Part IV)

Jordan Tan

This article was originally published on AeroTime News on August 16, 2019. 

If you have missed the third part of the timeline, check it out here:

For the past few months, the story of the Boeing 737 MAX has put the aviation industry into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Various reports about the lackluster safety standards, cases of conflict of interest and rushed decisions have shaken up the foundations of commercial aviation, once again raising questions amongst the general public whether the standards within the industry are good enough.

But why did the newest member of the Boeing 737 family, which was once advertised as “the best choice for creating the most successful future with improved profitability”, become a headache for Boeing and for operators that is only intensifying as time goes on?

Changing the game

The MAX name has become, arguably, the most talked-about aircraft name for the past couple of years. While at first the aircraft was adored amongst airline CEOs and some have described it as a “gamechanger”, currently, the same executives are getting bombarded with questions about the jet’s safety and resumption of operations.

Nevertheless, Boeing is sticking to its guns. Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of the company, believes that the 737 MAX “will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly”, as it returns to service.

On the other side of the spectrum, the general public has questioned whether the jet is safe to fly even to this day:

Passengers, who would only mind the price and comfort when picking their flights, have now become very aware of the aircraft type they might fly on. In May 2019, Southwest Airlines CMO spoke with CNBC and said that the airline will “allow them to fly on a different flight without paying any difference in fare”, if passengers felt nervous flying onboard a 737 MAX.

United Airlines’ CEO, Oscar Munoz, has also expressed that the airline will make adjustments if passengers express discomfort boarding a MAX: “If people need any kind of adjustments we will absolutely rebook them”. To reinstate customer confidence, he promised to personally “be on the first flight we [United Airlines – ed. note] fly on the Max aircraft”.

Airlines have no choice here, as they cannot afford to lose even more money if passengers are not willing to board a MAX. For the aircraft to be the “gamechanger”, people need to board a 737.

With social media and the internet, the ability to control the narrative is much more difficult than previously – even so, manufacturers have previously encountered issues of saving an aircraft‘s reputation and getting passengers to travel on it.

Looking back at the past – the DC-10 parallel

During the 1970s, the DC-10 suffered three high profile crashes, two of which were the result of an inherent design flaw with the cargo doors. Following the third crash, when an American Airlines DC-10 crashed on Flight 191 near Chicago, the FAA grounded every single DC-10 within the United States.

But the footage, showcasing the American Airlines DC-10 banking very sharply to the left and subsequently creating a massive fireball as it hit the ground, was broadcasted on television throughout America. The whole country witnessed an aircraft, which suffered two very memorable accidents, go through another one and claim the lives of 271 people. That was the final straw for the DC-10 and its reputation – the nickname Death Contraption-10 stuck.

McDonnell Douglas hired a marketing agency to conduct a “Reassurance campaign” and convince the passengers otherwise. In an old Flight magazine, an agency representative laid out a very clear goal: “We are going to reassure people that the DC-10 comes from a company skilled in technology and in building an advanced product”.

However, the passengers never trusted the DC-10 again. McDonnell Douglas had to end production of the aircraft in 1983 due to lack of orders.

Dr. Elena Maydell, a lecturer at Massey University, who has extensively studied aviation crisis communication, like the Malaysia Airlines MH370 case, notes how important and crucial crisis management is in such events:

“Media relations is an important aspect of crisis management, if not the most important, for any organization but especially for those who have to deal with human casualties. When a disaster happens that causes a significant loss of human life, it can be expected that media scrutiny of organizations and anyone considered responsible would only intensify.”

“Organizations that are able to predict the worst-case scenarios in their line of business should be ready to deal with the heightened media attention and should have crisis management plans prepared and rehearsed for such unfortunate events. There is plenty of theory, research and past cases to learn from, so it is an interesting question for researchers – why some organizations and their management still fail to address media relations in terms of serious crises,” Dr. Maydell explains.

Facing the media

Scrutiny of Boeing, and in some cases, the FAA, has been extensive throughout the MAX crisis. During the same period, the 737 MAX was not the only target – quality issues on the 787 production line at Boeing South Carolina facility were also highlighted.

Juggling the investigation, media and public relations is no easy task. Parties involved in the accident – airlines, manufacturers and aviation authorities have to follow rules that depict how much information can be released to the public.

For example, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), the agency that investigates civil aviation accidents within the UK and its overseas territories, has a guidance manual after an accident. In it, the AAIB indicates that “only the IIC [Investigator in Charge – ed. note], the Chief or Deputy Chief Inspectors of the AAIB, or members of the DfT [Department for Transport – ed. note] press office, when suitably briefed by the IIC, will release information to the media concerning the AAIB investigation”.

At the same time, AAIB recognizes that “operators and manufacturers are responsible for their own media relations following an accident or serious incident […]” and while the Branch “has no control over such activities”, the Branch indicates that “where possible the release of information should be coordinated and prior agreement obtained from the IIC”.

Coming up with a communications plan in such events is as difficult as building the aircraft itself. “Nevertheless, the parties involved can minimize their reputational damage after the accident and during the investigation if they follow the appropriate strategies in crisis communication,” said Dr. Maydell.

Even after the Lion Air jet went down, nobody initially blamed Boeing – Lion Air’s shabby maintenance record, which included a ban from operating within the EU, was at the forefront of attention. Flight JT610 preliminary report put further strain on the airline’s maintenance procedures.

But on March 10, 2019, when the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX crashed, the situation changed. Dr. Maydell highlighted this:

“With the Boeing 737 MAX, only the second disaster shifted the blame fully to Boeing, as two different air carriers had similar accident patterns. The shift of responsibility from the air carrier to the aircraft manufacturer straight away changes the focus of attention and the scope of potential problems from a human error to a mechanical/technical error”.

Aviation authorities addressed the threat – within a few days, a global grounding prohibited the 737 MAX from operating commercial flights.

Lack of clarity

Initially, Boeing did not claim responsibility for the crash in Indonesia, which was understandable – a lot of factors can be involved in an accident. Everyone thought it was a one-off incident that would never occur, especially with a brand-new aircraft family. Claiming responsibility at such early stages would be unwise, as pointed out by Dr. Maydell:

“It is common for aviation manufacturers to avoid direct contact or take responsibility at the initial stages of the investigation, which may be considered quite rational. It can be seen that Boeing initially adopted this strategy, but in view of the similar patterns in both disasters, Boeing should have changed their original strategy, in order to indicate that they are going to take more responsibility”.

Reports providing insight into the relationship between Boeing and FAA when the MAX was certified or the fact that pilots were not aware of the MCAS before Lion Air’s 737 MAX went down were not addressed by the company. Boeing’s lack of clarity around the media reports is where the company lost the narrative. But Dr. Maydell emphasized the difficulties of addressing these concerns:

“In such serious crises as aviation disasters, it is very difficult to provide just enough information to the public and media without jeopardizing both the official investigation and the future reputation of the organization. For these very reasons, any organization should have several crisis communication plans (i.e. for different types of accidents) to be enacted swiftly when such a crisis occurs, as not providing enough information will damage the reputation from a different angle”.

The manufacturer only clarified the information regarding the AOA Disagree Alert problems and a defect with MAX simulators. Even when the FAA announced that it found a flaw in the software update, Boeing was hesitant to provide any deep insight. In a press release, the company stated that the new update “will reduce pilot workload by accounting for a potential source of uncommanded stabilizer motion”.

Responsibility and changes

But what about accepting full responsibility for the two crashes? If the crash in Indonesia was a freak-accident, events in Ethiopia showed that there was an issue with the jet’s design. Dr. Maydell discusses that accepting full responsibility would not have been the best idea:

“Full acceptance of responsibility and a mortification strategy has been quite common for Japanese companies’ CEOs, and the Singaporean Airlines’ CEO used a similar one [after Singapore Airlines Flight SQ006 – ed. note]. This may be considered culturally appropriate for Singapore and some other countries in Asia and can bring more respect and therefore save the company’s reputation. For Boeing, the same strategy may bring a completely different meaning, due to different cultural understandings, so it would be risky to follow an example from a different culture”.

Dr. Maydell further added: “Saying this, the nature of the aviation industry is clearly global and transnational, but the image of different organizations is still culturally bound, so the same actions may be interpreted differently depending on the cultural context.”.

Some have called for the resignation of the current CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, as he became the face of Boeing’s communication during the crisis. Dr. Maydell points out that the resignation of Muilenburg would only add further complexity:

“Due to the level of authority required in such disasters, it would be unwise for the CEO to resign as this may cause further reputational damage and the company may be considered trying to avoid taking responsibility. Also, if the CEO keeps his post until the final report is published, this will ensure that the stakeholders have the continuity by dealing with the same person during this period.”

Stability during the crisis is key for the company, as Boeing already reported that the groundings will cost them $5B in revenue in Q2 of 2019 alone. Further destabilizing the company can lead to even more losses and issues of rebuilding trust with the three pillars holding the aviation industry together. Also, Muilenburg was not the CEO that approved the MAX. His predecessor, Jim McNerney was at the helm of Boeing at the time when the MAX program was given the green light. The resignation of a CEO during a crisis would be logical move only in extreme cases if customers express “a severe loss of trust in the CEO, that their resignation may be considered necessary to avoid further reputational damage”, adds Dr. Maydell.

Even if Muilenburg does resign and when aviation authorities permit the MAX to fly again, the plane will carry a reputation that is not the shiniest. Airlines are still very interested to operate the type due to its unbeatable economics and capabilities. However, passengers will always associate the MAX name with the crisis, rather than its “gamechanger” economics. Is rebranding an option?

Moving on

Some have shied away from using the MAX name. For one, in July 2019, Ryanair’s 737 MAX was spotted just outside the factory bearing the 737-8200 name, instead of the usual 737-MAX found below the cockpit’s windows.

International Airlines Group (IAG) shocked the world during the Paris Air Show 2019 when the group signed a letter of intent to purchase 200 Boeing 737 MAX. But it shocked nobody when IAG used the designations 737-8 and 737-10, rather than the usual three letters beside the iconic 737 numbers in their press release. Meanwhile, Boeing was more than happy that IAG placed “their trust and confidence in the 737 MAX […]”.

Even Donald Trump tried to stay as humble as possible when giving out advice to the American manufacturer about the MAX brand:

Rebranding the jet would be a difficult task for Boeing, as Dr. Maydell noted: “Boeing would need to coordinate these efforts with the efforts of its main customers, i.e. the air companies. As there are so many different players involved in this, it is hard to comment on specific orders and existing relationships with various parties”. Nevertheless, the MAX will take off to the skies once again. The question is when, rather than if – airlines are very keen to get the 737 MAX going due to its operating economics.

But are passengers willing to forget the two accidents that claimed a total of 346 people and sit down calmly in their seats as they depart for their destination? Are they willing to trust Boeing and the FAA’s stamp of approval, confirming that the 737 MAX is safe to carry passengers?

Only time will tell how much damage the company and the 737 MAX brand has endured. While rebranding might look like an obvious solution, the issue is much more complex than changing the letters next to the 737 name. As investigators in Indonesia and later on, in Ethiopia reveal their final reports, the ball will be in Boeing’s court. What they do with it might determine the future direction of the company and whether it will give up its number one spot as an aircraft manufacturer and fade into mediocrity for the years to come. Matter of the fact is, the crisis will not stop as the groundings lift – the effort to repaint the Boeing brand in new colors that represent safety and quality will last for years to come. What started in 2011 with the American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) announcement and continued up until 2017 with sales efforts and marketing campaigns to sell the newest family member before its debut, might kick-start once again to launch the MAX for a second coming in airline order books.

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