How good was Boeing's crisis communication response?
By Michelle Wang and James Fitzpatrick
In late 2018 and early 2019, Boeing made headlines around the world with two of its 737 Max 8 aircrafts suffering fatal crashes in less than six months. Countries and airlines responded by grounding that Boeing model.
On 29 October 2018, a Lion Air flight bound for Pangkal Pinang, Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea 13 minutes after take-off, killing all 189 passengers and crew. The plane had only begun operating in August, with 69 hours of operation for 19 flights.
Less than six months later on 10 March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. The aircraft was only four months old.
A preliminary report released by Indonesian investigators shows that the Lion Air aircraft’s pilots were fighting to override an automatic safety system installed in the Boeing 737 Max 8 plane that was responding to incorrect data transmitted by an angle of attack sensor. The system, called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), was pulling the plane’s nose down more than two dozen times during the flight.
The report also states that the same aircraft had serious technical problems on previous flights. In the most recent flight before the crash – a domestic flight from Denpasar to Jakarta – the pilot had requested to return to the Denpasar airport due to the same issue, but chose to continue flying to Jakarta after being able to turn off the MCAS and take manual control of the plane.
Investigations are currently underway for the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Ethiopian Minister of Transport both saying that similarities between the two crashes have been identified.
Boeing published a statement on 29 October after the Lion Air crash, expressing their sympathy for the victims and families, and the company’s willingness to cooperate with the investigation. In a later statement about the Lion Air preliminary report, Boeing states that “the appropriate procedure to address unintended horizontal stabiliser movement” was contained in the relevant flight manuals, and that it wasn’t clear if the procedures were followed during the 29 October flight that crashed.
The aircraft manufacturer then issued a bulletin disclosing that the 737 Max 8 line of planes are equipped with a new type of software as part of the plane’s automated functions. This led to reports of complaints filed by pilots in the US about Boeing’s 737 Max 8, with some of the incidents appearing to involve the same automated system that seemed to cause their Boeing 737 Max planes to tilt down suddenly. There was also concern raised about how the new system was not disclosed to anyone or put into manuals.
In the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Boeing expressed their sympathies to those affected by the crash in a statement and asserts that a Boeing technical team will be travelling to the crash site to provide technical assistance under the relevant authorities.
China, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia were the first to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, with other countries and airlines following suit. The US was one of the last to ground the Max 8, with the FAA and Boeing originally standing by the plane’s safety until 13 March, where Boeing said in a statement that it would tell the FAA to ground its entire fleet “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety.”
Prior to this decision, the chief executive of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, held a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump to make the case that the 737 Max 8 should not be grounded.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has since published a personal statement, expressing his sorrow over the second crash involving the particular aircraft and pledging the company’s commitment to safety.
Boeing has also announced a software upgrade for the 737 Max fleet.
Boeing moved fast to publish a statement expressing their sympathies for those affected by the Lion Air crash and Ethiopian Airlines crash, establishing their willingness to cooperate with investigations into the two incidents. CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s personal statement also expresses sorrow over the second crash, and further outlines the company’s commitment to safety.
Communications experts have said that Boeing is in a “very difficult” position due to restrictions to what a manufacturer can say publicly until investigations have been concluded by authorities.
However, Boeing has also been criticised for allowing airlines and civil aviation authorities to take a lead on responding to the crisis, with critics insisting that the manufacturer should lead the response – such as taking the initiative to ground their fleet of 737 Max 8 planes.
This is compounded by the accusation that Boeing failed to successfully communicate sufficient information regarding the inclusion of the automated system to key stakeholders (e.g. pilots). If valid, this accusation suggests the company’s internal and key stakeholder communications could be improved.
We may not be seeing the whole picture, but from the outside (and to the general public), this incident has likely contributed to Boeing’s reputation for safety being “called into question” due to their seemingly slow response and (in this instance at least) poor key stakeholder communication.
Initially the company will be focused on the several lawsuits that have been filed against it by families of victims of the Lion Air crash, and more lawsuits expected following the Ethiopian Airlines crash – but long term the company faces an even greater risk…
A positive safety record is the most influential characteristic to the brand and reputation of any company operating in the aviation industry. Pending the conclusions of the final crash investigation reports, if Boeing’s technology is found to be one of the causes, and their communication to pilots about the technology brought into question, their reputation could be tarnished for a long time, which in turn could affect their partnerships and contracts – leading to an impact on their bottom line.
If this is how this case transpires, it will take a humble, empathetic, assertive and well-coordinated crisis communication response to protect their reputation long-term. They will have to reassure their stakeholders (which includes the wider community) that they will take responsibility for what occurred and will address the causes of this incident while committing to do better in the future.