Boeing’s no stranger to crisis. The airline industry is the one profession where every member has a crisis team and they are really, really good. It’s a risky business.
Getting the bugs out of a blender, a coffee maker, a refrigerator or even a car is not usually a matter of life and death. Boeing’s problem could be.
The electrical fires, fuel leaks and window cracks on some of its 787 Dreamliners come at the worst-possible time. Fifteen months into the high-tech plane’s lifespan, Boeing delivered 40, with 800 still on order. If these problems aren’t fixed and fast, those buyers will go elsewhere — and that’s a huge problem for Boeing, and the American economy. What airline company is going to pay more than $150 million per plane, even if it does cut fuel costs by 20 percent, if fuel leaks?
Crain’s Chicago Business hit the mark with a story asking where Boeing CEO Jim McNerney hid as these problems mounted over the last few weeks. The story notes that Boeing trotted out the 787’s chief engineer to assure owners, buyers and the flying public that the Dreamliner is just that. But what else would he say?
Writes Crain’s Joe Cahill:
The 787 is now at risk — unfairly, in my view — of being tagged as an unsafe plane. This would have serious ramifications for Boeing, making passengers leery of flying the 787 and airlines leery of buying it.
As CEO, Mr. McNerney’s job is to protect Boeing’s brand, its multibillion investment and the promise of a revolutionary new aircraft. The 787’s innovative use of carbon-fiber materials not only cuts airlines’ fuel costs, it makes it possible for them to serve new routes, a benefit to the traveling public and a new source of growth for the airline industry. Carriers have lined up to buy the plane, despite the three-and-a-half-year delay in bringing it to the market.
Indeed, where is Boeing’s crisis response? Where’s the well-oiled response team that puts McNerney out front to bat away any inferences that some minor problems on a few planes are an issue?
Boeing finally took a positive step Wednesday when its chief engineer on the 787 held a conference call with reporters. Mike Sinnett expressed “extreme confidence” in the 787 and made the important contextual point that Boeing’s 777 had similar issues during its first year of service. He also explained the redundancies and other safety features built into the 787 electrical systems to prevent malfunctions like those seen recently from affecting the plane’s air worthiness. And he ran through the steps Boeing takes to investigate and correct equipment failures after they occur.
A company spokesman points out that a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of an electrical fire on a Japan Airlines 787 at Logan Airport in Boston on Monday precludes the Chicago-based company from publicly discussing the particulars of that incident. Under the circumstances, he says, Boeing is providing appropriate disclosure from the appropriate executive.
Hiding behind a gag order is not instilling confidence. Boeing needs to make McNerney available and even if can only speak generically, reassure the market and the industry the plane will overcome these obstacles.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.