It’s become a Facebook trope: airplane passengers posting photos of their 737 Max 8 safety cards, snatched from seat-back pockets.
“This does not bode well,” wrote Larry Lubell, a Chicago insurance executive on his way to Austin.
A bit dramatic, given that 737 Maxes are grounded while Boeing tries to fix the software glitches that sent two of them crashing into the ground, killing 346 passengers and crew.
But also a reminder that even after the technical challenges are overcome, there will be the public relations stain, one that will take much longer to scrub out.
“Boeing’s Tough Sell: Trust Us” headlined a story in The New York Times last Thursday, a tale that does not portray a company nimbly cleaning up its mess.
“Boeing is facing credibility problems,” the story noted. That happens when you not only screw up, but then compound your error by doing a tap dance around the problem.
Go to the Boeing website. The second item — already a subtle wink that business goes on — promises “737 MAX UPDATES.”
Click on that. Up comes a video of Dennis Muilenburg, chairman, president and CEO of Boeing, his blue eyes harmonizing nicely with his blue shirt; tieless, to show they are in crisis mode.
“We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 Max accidents,” he begins.
A start. Then again, I am also sorry about any lives lost. Maybe you are, too. That doesn’t mean we caused them.
“These tragedies continue to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds,” Muilenburg continues, “tragedies” slyly implying we’re talking about acts of God, instead of corporate corner-cutting, though hazily suggesting Boeing might have a closer association with these crashes than you or I do. “And we extend our sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew onboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.”
“Sympathies” being the new version of “thoughts and prayers.”
“All of us feel the immense gravity of these events across our company …”
Myself, I would have found better words than “immense gravity,” suggesting, to me anyway, the immense gravity pulling at those two planes as they struggled against Boeing-designed software to stay aloft.
Muilenburg natters on for five minutes, delivering a master class in weaseling. No hint that any kind of mistakes were made, only that Boeing has the know-how to fix them.
“We own it, and we know how to do it,” he says. “We’re taking the time to get the software update right.”
Sidestepping the uncomfortable possibility that had Boeing taken the time to get the software right in the first place, those 346 people would still be alive and Boeing wouldn’t be scrambling to fix the problem that killed them. Nor would passengers aboard 737s be nervously showing off their safety cards.
“We’ve always been relentless focused on safety,” Muilenburg says. Not according to former Boeing engineers lining up to say that safety was compromised.
What should Boeing do? There is plenty of recent precedent. We are in a golden age of corporate PR disasters, from Facebook to Wells Fargo, and the aircraft manufacturer might want to look there for guidance.
For instance: Volkswagen sold 11 million diesel cars from 2009 to 2015 with computer software written to defeat the anti-pollution controls except when the cars were being tested. The company lost $33 billion in fines and recalls, and two executives went to prison.
“We’ve totally screwed up,” said VW America boss Michael Horn. That’s the tone Boeing needs to reach for, though it took VW a few years of turning on the spit of shame to get there.
I, of course, contacted Boeing, which said it would be in touch “soon,” though “soon” apparently doesn’t mean “within the next four days.”
Take your time. Breathe in. And try to get it right. Boeing needs to be doing a better job here. Nobody takes pleasure in seeing an American company, with its headquarters in Chicago, slide so thoroughly into the ditch. They’ve tried talking gibberish and hoping nobody notices. It’s a bad look. People notice.
“We regret the impact the grounding has had on our customers and their passengers,” Muilenburg says.
Ya do? Really? Shame you didn’t also regret, sincerely, the impact the ground had on those 346 passengers and crew, as well regret the central role neglect and bumbling at Boeing seem to have played in putting them there. But that acknowledgment is coming. It has to.