Boeing 737 MAX crisis: Burned bridges (Part III)
If you have missed the second part of the timeline, check it out here:
When the Ethiopian investigators released the preliminary report, Boeing and MCAS were put on a spotlight. The two accidents were eerily similar and it was obvious – the additional software to prevent the 737 MAX from stalling was at the heart of the two fatal crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. For Boeing, it meant two things:
Firstly, the update to MCAS itself was the number one priority to get the MAX off the ground. As weeks, and later months, passed after the grounding, Boeing started running out of space to store the manufactured aircraft, as the company still produces 42 MAX planes per month.
Secondly, it had to rebuild the burned bridges throughout the crisis. The public image of the company went down the drain and is yet to recover. Headlines about the production of the 737 MAX and the culture within the company put a burden on the crisis communications campaign, that was already lackluster.
The Boeing 737 MAX situation is truly unprecedented. Previous to this, a full-scale grounding of a jet was a very rare occurrence. Even then, the groundings were lifted rather quickly. With the MAX, Boeing broke its relationship with three main pillars that keep the aviation industry together – aircraft crews, airlines and passengers.
Diverting the blame to pilots
On May 13, 2019, Dallas Morning News revealed the contents of an audiotape they received from a meeting between Boeing and American Airlines pilots. A few weeks after a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX crashed on October 29, 2018, tensions were already at an all-time high.
At the meeting, pilots angrily confronted a Boeing representative, with such comments as: “We flat out deserve to know what is on our airplanes”. The tone and topic in the meeting were very clear – pilots were not happy with the manufacturer or the way it kept MCAS in the dark:
“These guys didn't even know the damn system was on the airplane”.
Even when Boeing did admit that the software, exclusive to the MAX, was a link in a “chain of events” that brought down two airliners, some still believe pilot training was at fault, rather than the manufacturer itself. For instance, On May 15, 2019, Republican U.S. Representative Sam Graves during a House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure hearing regarding the 737 MAX status stated: „For me, the accident reports reaffirm my belief that pilots trained in the United States would have successfully handled the situation. The reports compound my concerns about quality training standards in other countries”.
At the same hearing, Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had other beliefs. While Graves highlighted that “the preliminary reports reveal pilot error as a factor in these tragically fatal accidents”, DeFazio questioned the viewpoint of blaming the pilots:
“Why, until the plane went down, the first plane of Lion Air, it wasn’t even in the manual that this automated system existed?”
DeFazio added: “How the hell are you [the pilot – ed. note] the redundancy if you don’t know something? There’s something called the startle factor. I’m not a commercial pilot, but I got to tell you, if you’re at a low altitude and the plane starts automatically pitching itself down every ten seconds, there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to have trouble dealing with that”.
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