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”.