Boeing is facing additional scrutiny following reports that recent plane crashes were tied to missing safety equipment.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that two safety features meant to alert pilots to potentially incorrect readings were not included on either aircraft, because Boeing charged extra for them.
Boeing has been in hot water over the development of the 737 Max, a replacement for its popular 737 airplane. The model represents the greater part of Boeing’s new aircraft orders, but new autopilot software has led safety advocates to question whether the planes are safe. After two crashes in five months, governments around the world grounded the aircraft.
Boeing and U.S. government regulators were slow to respond to the crisis, and Boeing has defended the integrity of the aircraft in statements to the public. However, the latest reports threaten to undermine the aircraft manufacturer’s message.
Boeing’s optional safety features, in part, could have helped the pilots detect any erroneous readings. One of the optional upgrades, the angle of attack indicator, displays the readings of the two sensors. The other, called a disagree light, is activated if those sensors are at odds with one another.
… “They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation consultancy Leeham. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”
Boeing is now making one of the safety features standard in its new 737 Max models.
The Times reported:
Boeing will soon update the MCAS software, and will also make the disagree light standard on all new 737 Max planes, according to a person familiar with the changes, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been made public. Boeing started moving on the software fix and the equipment change before the crash in Ethiopia.
In addition to the lack of safety features in the crashed planes, journalists also reported that the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air pilots both had significantly less training than pilots in the United States.
To fly for one of the scheduled U.S. airlines or their regional carriers, the Federal Aviation Administration requires an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which calls for at least 1,000-1,500 flight hours, depending on how the training was done. And pilots hired by the major airlines typically have much more experience than that.
By comparison, the roughly equivalent Multi-crew Pilot License issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which takes a different approach to training, can be earned with as little as 200 flight hours.
The Ethiopian Airlines pilot also did not fly with the updated flight simulator before operating the 737 Max.
Captain Yared Getachew, 29, was due for refresher training at the end of March, his colleague told Reuters, two months after Ethiopian Airlines had received one of the first such simulators being distributed.
… “Boeing did not send manuals on MCAS,” the Ethiopian Airlines pilot told Reuters in a hotel lobby, declining to give his name as staff have been told not to speak in public.
“Actually we know more about the MCAS system from the media than from Boeing.”
The news reports are a reputational hit for Boeing, and at least one airline is attempting to cancel a contract for the planes.
On Friday, The New York Times reported:
The airline, Garuda Indonesia, said that it sent a letter to Boeing on March 14 seeking to cancel its order of 49 planes, of which just one had been delivered so far. The deal is estimated to be worth $4.9 billion.
… “Continuing the Max order does not benefit Garuda,” said the spokesman, Ikhsan Rosan. “Our passengers, psychologically, they don’t trust flying with Max anymore. They often asked during booking what type of aircraft they would be flying on.”
Boeing and airlines’ crisis response
Brian Hart, founder and president of PR and digital marketing agency Flackable, says that the “horrific situation is a crisis of trust” for Boeing.
Trust begins with accountability. Any response deflecting partial responsibility to airlines or the FAA does nothing to regain the trust of key stakeholders, of which passengers and airline crews must explicitly be the top priority.
Michelle Garrett, owner of Garrett Public Relations, says that once consumer trust has been broken, organizations must sincerely apologize and admit responsibility for the crisis, try to make amends and then “stick with [its plan], as it will take time to rebuild” brand reputation.
“Let’s hope they have a crisis communications pro on board—or that they hire an expert quickly,” Garrett says.
However, Boeing has been largely tight-lipped during the crisis, choosing to not answer most reporters’ questions.
The company’s chief gave a short statement about making the jets safer.
Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, said the company was working on making the 737 Max safer.
“As part of our standard practice following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate, institute product updates to further improve safety,” he said in a statement Sunday.
Muilenburg’s response was echoed by another company executive.
Boeing’s vice president for commercial plane marketing, Randy Tinseth, told a Bank of America Merrill Lynch conference in London on Thursday that he expected the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to certify updates to the jet’s flight control software, on board displays, flight manual and training.
“We have gone through steps such as working with it in a simulator, we flight tested the improvements and we are working with the FAA towards certification, and we believe that will happen in coming weeks,” said Tinseth.
… Tinseth said every life lost in a Boeing airplane was “deeply felt throughout organization” but he retained “great confidence” in the plane.
The PR teams for the airlines involved in the crashes are also scrambling following the crises.
Lion Air has also remained silent following its crash, while Ethiopian Airlines issued a defensive statement.
… Ethiopian Airlines said in a statement Thursday that its pilots had been following FAA and Boeing guidance.
“Ethiopian Airlines pilots completed the Boeing recommended and FAA approved differences training from the B-737 NG aircraft to the B-737 MAX aircraft before the phase in of the B-737-8 MAX fleet to the Ethiopian operation and before they start flying the B-737-8 MAX,” the airline said in a statement.
“We urge all concerned to refrain from making such uninformed, incorrect, irresponsible and misleading statements during the period of the accident investigation. International regulations require all stakeholders to wait patiently for the result of the investigation,” it said.
Though Boeing has been careful to not admit responsibility, Hart says the time has come for that PR statement to happen.
The only appropriate response, in light of these new developments, is to immediately own accountability for not mandating features that, reportedly, might have prevented these colossal tragedies.
What do you think Boeing’s next crisis communications move should be, PR Daily readers?