Boeing glides back with 787, but will efforts stop crisis?


When last we left Boeing Co. the lithium-ion battery system on its next-generation 787s started fires, leading to the fleet’s grounding and some poor communications choices by leaders trying to stem the panic.

Yesterday, Boeing’s chief design engineer on the project reported the company had made hundreds of design changes that would make the batteries safer and protect the plane, crew and passengers. This of course begs the question of why those changes were not designed in to begin with, but that choice may be understandable in a competitive, cost-conscious industry.

As part of the new batteries’ revealing, chief project engineer Michael Sinnett said he’d fly on the plane — and indeed had, hundreds of times — and would think nothing of putting his wife and children on the plane. [Testimonials like these seem smart up front, but since they’re theoretical and are tied to someone who’s life and livelihood is linked to the claim, do they really communicate the conviction they seem to?]

I mean, what do we expect him to say? “I’d put my mother in law on this plane any day.” Or, “Anytime my rival at Airbus wants to fly on this plane, we have a free ticket for him.” You see the point.

In addition, likely for business reasons, Boeing decided not to pinpoint the cause of the battery problems and instead surrounded the problem. It chose to define all the possible causes and design fixes or protections for them. This works if we have full faith in Boeing engineers to hit the target with this shotgun approach. But it might not convince buyers who want reassurance that fires absolutely can’t happen again.

Pointedly, Boeing is saying the plane is safe; not that it fixed the problem that caused the fires. That might be enough for the notoriously industry-friendly Federal Aviation Administration, but will it be enough for airlines and their passengers?

Boeing still has issues, as is often the case when engineering clashes with budgets and business and profit. No doubt the engineers would prefer to come out six months from now and say they tested the 787 with the new batteries in 1,413 test flights in all conditions with full loads and had no problem.

But the business side can’t countenance the extra millions of dollars for such tests on the already vastly over-budget 787 those would require.

And therein lies the ongoing crisis. Smart people at Boeing are betting that what they’ve done is enough to restore public and regulatory confidence in the plane and that customers will again line up to fill their orders. If they don’t, it’s more than back to the drawing board, it may be starting over. Does the Edsel ring a bell?

Boeing employed some interesting approaches yesterday. The announcement show was put on in Tokyo, which makes sense from the point of view that the first major buyers of the planes are All Nippon Airlines and Japan Air Lines. Boeing executives even formally apologized, a hallowed tradition in Japanese business culture.

However, the show went on before Japanese media, who are professionally much more respectful of authority and far less likely than American or British media to ask probing or embarrassing questions — especially since about one-third of the airplane’s parts are made in Japan. Smart on Boeing’s part, but pretty manipulative.

Maybe, as Boeing is no doubt hoping and praying, the batteries will operate perfectly from now on. But if they don’t … this crisis has only been prolonged.

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.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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