The Boeing 737 Crisis and Our Future

We must rejoice in the rapid and coordinated response of the EU to the Boeing 737 Max 8 accident in Ethiopia, prohibiting that model from flying into, within or from Europe. The safety of the people always comes first. One would be forgiven for thinking that the measure was facilitated by an alignment with European interests in support of Airbus, Boeing’s main competitor, but the decision was the right one nevertheless.  That the USA has followed the same path and have grounded all aircraft of that model, too, is likewise the correct decision as much as it hurts a strategic sector such as aviation.

We ought to congratulate ourselves because the official organizations and regulators that watch over our security have acted swiftly and decisively, without being held back by economic interests. That’s not always the case, so today they deserve our applause so that this example can set a precedent.

The same cannot be said about Boeing. All of its stakeholders (airlines, shareholders, regulators, public authorities and the rest of the industry) would have preferred a more diligent attitude. Air travel is an activity highly sensitive to social perceptions of safety and security. We would all have welcomed an immediate response that didn’t seek to protect their own interests, but rather to defend the greater public interest. It is not the most frequent attitude in a discovery of a potentially defective product, but it is the only way to weather such a crisis comparably well.

Boeing is in a crisis because its relationships with those very stakeholders are seriously threatened. Who else will be left to think if they can’t find better alternatives. The only way to protect and even strengthen these relationships is to forget about the income statement. You have to spend what you have to spend to fix the problem, that is, to protect those relationships. You can survive a crisis with debts, even huge ones. But not without clients, without shareholders, without banks that would lend to you and without official permits to operate in the first place.

Sometimes we misinterpret reputation as if it were a value independent of our actions. We conceive it as if it were the consequence of some complex communication engineering or – even worse – marketing, which is suspended in the air without support. One then falls into the tempting trap of avoiding anything that has a negative impact on that corporate image. As if clearly recognizing a problem, assuming one’s own responsibilities and stopping the machines is like throwing stones against the roof itself. It’s the other way around!

On the contrary, you lose credibility, and down the road recovering it is very difficult. It would have been very different if the entire initiative to stop those planes had come from Boeing itself.  A hard landing no doubt, but one that keeps its fuselage of credibility intact in the eyes of its priority audiences.  Later, they could have said: “Fortunately, it was a false alarm: everything is fine,” or even, “we have discovered the problem, and we will repair it before there are any more accidents.”

This episode also shows that problems bring forward signs of life. The accident of another airplane of the exact same model a few months ago wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been. No one really asked, “what if what happened with that plane is a structural defect?” Ultimately the direst, last consequences were reached. These days we read comments from pilots who experienced the same problems, complaints about a lack of more intense training processes and clearer, more detailed training materials … Today nothing internal stays in the dark: absolutely everything will be known, not through the mouths of official spokespersons either. The truth finds holes to come to light.

Now, what to do? Quite plainly, learn. It isn’t the first crisis of the aviation industry nor will it be the last. We need strong companies, capable of responding quickly in defense of the greater public interest. The best scenario for everyone would be that Boeing recovers and sews the tear in its relations with its priority audiences. They will achieve it, if its actions restore lost credibility. I am inclined to think that they even hope for recovery if they themselves reveal that there were internal failures. But if these failures are discovered by others, they can consider themselves finished.

In short: aircraft manufacturers have to disappear once more. It would be a disaster that now instead of choosing which airline to fly, we would start to see if we would (or not) to fly on a specific model.

Not only do the other aircraft manufacturers have to study this case. There are lessons to spare for all industries working towards greater control of activities by artificial intelligence which have a direct impact on people, such as cars and transport in general. It isn’t enough to say that the number of victims “while the machines learn” will be small, and smaller than what human errors currently cause. If they want to prevent a reaction from being motivated solely by strong emotions (and by anti-system ideologies) and hindering progress, they need to devote much time and energy to communication processes, with human supervisors and with public opinion in general. It isn’t the company that decides what is an acceptable risk, but rather the people.

Yago de la Cierva
Director of Crisis Communication at Proa Comunicación