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Will the Boeing Brand Fly High Again?

How the 737 Max Disaster Could Actually Make Future Flight Safer

Boeing’s best-selling plane, the 737 Max, is still grounded and no one knows when it will be cleared to fly again. The families of the 346 people who died in irrecoverable nose dives initiated by a failed sensor (first in the October Lion Air crash and second in the March Ethiopian Airlines crash), now have a clearer understanding as to why their loved ones died. The development process that Boeing and regulators used left the aircraft vulnerable by failing to require more than a single safety measure, or sensor back-up, as the primary hurdle to pass before approving it for flight. The process disconnect between engineers, regulators and management only made matters worse.

Beyond the devastating loss of life from this failure, the consequences are significant:

  • Grounded planes – Passengers’ travel was disrupted  and carriers lost revenue.
  • Lost orders – Over $1 billion in 737 Max orders have been cancelled.
  • Market value declines – Since the March crash, Boeing’s share price declined 25% and the company lost over $50 billion in market capitalization.
  • Economists attributed a two to three-tenths of a percent hit to the national GDP. 

But the biggest consequence may be to the brand reputation of Boeing itself. Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, was slow to respond out of the gate as regulators waited for more information while the Max 737 was still flying – even while other countries were grounding it. Then, Muilenburg couldn’t get ahead of the news and manage the messaging. He lost control and credibility as elements of the story came out in a piecemeal fashion and led to more confusion than clarity. “Software fixes will take a couple months.” (Not!) “Components of pilot training and flight simulation were optional for an additional cost.” (What?). “The certification process whereby Boeing employees inspected their own aircraft was ‘a good system’ according the FAA Chief.” (Huh?)

This past Sunday, Muilenburg offered another official apology. The fact is, the MCAS software used to correct potential nose-up conditions led to automated nose-down corrections. False readings from the one and only sensor initiated the fatal chain of events. It is hard to believe that the entire MCAS system was dependent on a single failed outside sensor! I recently had a chance to chat with a pilot friend of mine who shared that there is a cardinal rule in aircraft design: never have a single point of failure. The 737 Max lacked additional safety measures, and there was no fail-safe for this faulty sensor. The fact that all of the software systems were necessary in the first place, to compensate for an engine size and placement design change that made the plane harder to control, begs for more sinister answers. Evidence suggests that Boeing rushed a flawed design to market to compete with Airbus for financial and competitive reasons.

As a brand marketer, I believe that Boeing could have precluded all of the design and process flaws if it adhered to and operationalized its mission and values which are to lead with Integrity, Quality and Safety. From Boeing’s principles, Safety First:

“We value human life and well-being above all else and take action accordingly. We believe all incidents, injuries and workplace illnesses are preventable. We are personally accountable for our own safety and collectively responsible for each other’s safety. By committing to safety first, we advance our goals for quality, cost, and schedule.”

Boeing also committed to “making planes that are safe to fly and can be safely flown by every pilot in the world.” However, when bringing the 737 Max to market, they made certain safety features, information and training optional for an additional cost.

Clearly, Boeing did not operationalize its values. In its rush to market, it trampled over its principles. Muilenburg promised that when the flaws are fixed, the Max will be one of the safest planes ever to fly. I am not confident that the flying the public will agree. So, will the Boeing brand fly high again? If they can realign with their values and deliver on it, maybe. Maybe not. When confidence is lost, the damage can take a generation to overcome. But I am confident of this – Airbus, Boeing and regulators are taking a very hard look at every step, every assumption and every motive. Because of this, I believe the planes of the future, that are on engineers’ drafting tables, will now be safer than ever before. 

Marketing Agency Blog Post Author of Will the Boeing Brand Fly High Again?

June 20, 2019
Written by Tom Sullivan

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