News analysis
In a series of interviews with Business Insider, numerous experts have questioned Boeing's handling of the 737 Max crisis.
Stephen Brashear/GettyImages; Yutong Yuan/Business Insider

  • Boeing's response to the two fatal crashes of its 737 Max planes was marked by delayed apologies and confusing messages, according to experts, analysts, and lawyers who talked to Business Insider.
  • This likely deepened mistrust in Boeing rather than winning it back as the company is aiming to do, they said.
  • Boeing seemed to defend the plane's safety at the same time as apologising for the crashes and promising to update the plane.
  • One expert said that strategy was a "confusing, ambiguous thing that caused people to feel a little bit of anxiety."
  • "The first rule in any crisis is to show that you care. And what is clear to me is that Boeing was unable to get people to believe that they cared," they said.
  • For more stories, visit the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

    Boeing's attempts to manage the crisis caused by two fatal crashes of its 737 Max planes left people confused, anxious and sceptical of its apologies instead of restoring trust in the company, numerous experts told Business Insider.

    The world's biggest aircraft manufacturer was left scrambling for explanations and an appropriate international response after two Max jets crashed within five months, killing almost 350 people.

    First, a Lion Air 737 Max crashed into the sea off Indonesia in October 2018, killing all 189 people on board. Then, in March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed shortly after take off, killing everyone on board, a total of 157 people.

    Boeing CEO Denis Muilenburg apologised in a video 26 days after the second crash, acknowledging that the second preliminary report confirmed that the plane's sensors had misfired in the same way on both doomed jets.

    "We own it," he said, vowing that a software update meant similar accidents would "never happen again."

    But in the coming weeks, the company would also defend the design of the plane.Boeing did not respond to requests for comment.

    But experts from both the aviation and communications industries, and analysts, told Business Insider that the company's response was slow, insufficient, and confusing, and likely contributed to a deepening mistrust around Boeing's planes, instead of helping it win trust back. Lawyers helping to sue Boeing - who obviously don't have the company's interest at heart - agree.

    See also: Boeing's CEO explains why the company didn't tell 737 Max pilots about the software system that contributed to 2 fatal crashes

    Helio Fred Garcia, a crisis management professor at New York University and Columbia University, and president of crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group, told Business Insider: "Trust didn't fall because two of its plane crashes. Trust fell because they were seen to be indifferent."

    Boeing's immediate response to the second crash put it on the back foot

    That Muilenburg apologised for the company's role in the crashes was a good step for the company, Garcia said. "They said, 'We're on it, we apologize, we take it seriously, we're on the scene.' They got that right."

    But the apology video, he said, came too late, and the pre-recorded video format distributed through social media and news networks may not have helped.

    Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg shared a video apology after two fatal 737 Max plane crashes.
    Twitter/Dennis A. Muilenburg

    "My sense of Muilenburg is that he was a few steps behind where he needed to be."

    "It was a good video. But it was a) late b) limited mostly to social media and any mainstream media who quoted from it."

    "A video statement is better than no statement. But it would be more effective if it was in front of humans, with some ability to take questions."

    See also: Boeing's 737 Max crisis could have a bigger effect on the US economy than the government shutdown

    This slow response, he said, may have led some airlines to mistrust Boeing. Soon after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, Indonesian's flagship airline Garuda, cancelled a $5 billion order for forty-nine 737 Max jets, saying passengers "lost trust and no longer have the confidence" in the plane.

    Professor Irv Schenkler, who teaches crisis communication at NYU's Stern School of Business, told Business Insider that Boeing took an "operational problem" and made it "a reputational crisis - driven by poor messaging at the start of the events, creating concern and fear."

    Family and friends of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing plane crash victims hold a protest outside Boeing's annual shareholders meeting in Chicago in August.

    Boeing's initial strategy was "the less said, the better," he said.

    But this appeared to backfire: "This strategy created a vacuum which media sources stepped into, finding out details about meetings and messages that contradicted company statements."

    Its strategy then changed with the apology, Schenkler said, "out of necessity."

    But Muilenburg's apology, Schenkler said, shows Boeing is "hoping to 'hold the line' with industrial customers and governments while also trying to put their best face forward via executive apologies using video."

    "To some extent, it's a matter of putting lipstick on a pig - it's still a pig."

    Boeing's apologies led to a conflicting set of messages that may have made people more frightened

    Boeing's apology came after it pledged to create a software update that would fix the plane's problems and, once approved by the FAA and global regulators, return it to the skies as "one of the safest planes ever to fly."

    But Boeing also defended the plane's design to the public and to shareholders, claiming that there was not a "technical slip or gap" in its creation.

    Chris Clearfield, founder of risk management consulting firm System Logic, a licensed pilot, and co-author of Meltdown, a book about handling catastrophes, told Business Insider that these messages appear contradictory in a way that meant Boeing's "crisis response was challenged."

    See also: Airlines have stopped buying Boeing 737 Max planes in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash

    Jim Corridore, an aerospace and defence analyst at CFRA, told Business Insider that "Boeing is playing a double-edged game" by admitting responsibility while also suggesting things beyond its control may have gone wrong.

    In April, Muilenburg suggested that pilots in the Ethiopian Airlines crash did not "completely" follow the manufacturer's emergency procedures

    Corridore said this approach is "not a great strategy."

    Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg speaks during a press conference after the annual shareholders meeting in Chicago in August.
    Jim Young-Pool/Getty Images

    Boeing, Garcia said, seemed "unprepared" for the concern from airlines and governments around the world, which grounded the plane, and it sent out a confusing mix of messages that "led to a failure to execute their strategy well."

    "They said all the right things about 'our condolences' and 'we are committed to getting it right.' But they said 'our plane is safe, we are confident in the safety of our plane,' and they also said we're working on a software update."

    Garcia said this was confusing because "if they're working on a software upgrade it suggests there's something wrong with the software."

    "When they say 'We apologize, but our plane is safe,' people say: 'Well hold on a minute, those two statements can't be true.'"

    This confusion, he said, caused people to be anxious about Boeing: "They sent out this confusing, ambiguous thing that caused people to feel a little bit of anxiety. When there is ambiguity, there is unresolved tension. And that unresolved tension causes anxiety."

    Both Clearfield and Garcia said Boeing was likely thinking about the plane's safety in terms of its engineering, rather than from the view of pilots that fly the planes. Pilots can make human errors and, reportedly did not always know that a safety feature in the planes they were flying was turned off.

    "What I believe they meant by that was 'our airplane is safe when pilots know how to fly this plane.' And they assumed that all of the pilots knew how to fly this plane," Garcia said.

    "I have the sense that they weren't intentionally misleading, they simply were thinking like engineers and not like pilots."

    Lawyers for victims' families also criticise Boeing's response

    Brian Kabateck, who represents 13 families suing Boeing over the Lion Air crash, told Business Insider that Boeing could help families by resolving the cases and letting them move on. But first, he said, they needed to be consistent in their messaging.

    "The first thing that Boeing could do is take a consistent position," he said.

    Joe Power, a Chicago-based personal-injury lawyer representing some Ethiopian Airlines crash victims, told Business Insider that Boeing asking for peoples' trust is "not only confusing but disingenuous."

    He said Boeing was speaking more publicly because of attention on the case: "Because of the public outcry Boeing is slowly rolling out the truth. This slow truth appears to be coming from whistleblowers rather than the Boeing hierarchy."

    "Boeing's belated and inadequate response has fallen on deaf ears for all those who have suffered from this tragedy."

    Some lawyers say Muilenburg's apology could help families' cases, and more families have come forward to sue Boeing since his address.

    Garcia said lawyers will often tell their clients not to apologise "fearing it will increase liability," but said it was a better strategy for Boeing. "My reply is they'll be sued anyway. Better to maintain trust."

    How Boeing handles the crisis going forward is important for the company

    Garcia said that Boeing needed to concentrate on working with airlines, so it can "ensure that every pilot knows what's on his or her airplane and what's not, that every pilot knows how to manage the new software."

    He said any effort to rebrand the Max, as suggested by US President Donald Trump, would be seen as "essentially a PR stunt - trying to deceive people in the future about what kind of plane they're getting on."

    Boeing's handling of the crisis will also be important for its financial future, having already seen profits plunge in the aftermath of the disasters.

    Corridore, the aviation analyst, said that his company has given Boeing's stock a "buy" rating, because "we do think that Boeing will get this software issue fixed, the planes are ultimately going to be safe."

    But he said they needed to think about how to manage the crisis "as they plot a business strategy for how it's going to regain customer confidence for the next 50 years."

    "As long as they do get this thing right, which we think they will, then the stock will be OK."

    Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, talks to the parents of Ethiopian Air crash victim Samya Stumo before the House Transportation Committee holds a hearing on the Boeing 737 Max.
    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    One means of helping Boeing's image, Garcia said, would be for Muilenburg to appear before a congressional committee.

    "The challenge for Boeing is this is now an issue of trust and it's an issue of accountability, and only the CEO can restore that trust or retain that trust or otherwise speak in a way that is likely to do either of those things in front of Congress."

    Ultimately, Garcia said: "The first rule in any crisis is to show that you care. And what is clear to me is that Boeing was unable to get people to believe that they cared."

    "Boeing can survive this, but only if they show they care."

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