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Is Boeing Big Enough to Say It's Wrong... Or Is It Too Big to Do So?

Posted: 28/01/2013 00:00

"We stand behind its overall integrity" declares the official statement from Boeing regarding the grounding of its fleet of 787s. This brings images to my mind of 'Chemical Ali' - the Iraqi minister who declared that they were winning the war, as Baghdad burnt behind him. The recent issues with the new plane really highlight how honesty and humility are vital parts of trust. And trust in our airlines and airplanes is surely paramount?

Boeing's not unique, and you do have to feel sorry for their plight - they launch the next generation of plane, which moves aviation forward in terms of economy, technology and capacity, and proudly call it the Dreamliner. What then follows is a series of fairly minor defects that quickly tarnish the plane's reputation, and seriously lower our desire to fly in the thing.

Their challenge is that to say publicly 'there's a potential problem with some parts of the plane' risks utterly destroying its reputation. But you do have to ask, at what point does point-blank denial lose out to mounting, graphic evidence?

In the 1950s the British plane maker de Havilland dwindled quickly after its newest plane, the Comet, developed a design flaw that caused the planes to disintegrate (it had square windows... something you'll now never see on a plane). The failure cost them trust, and it cost them market share, as Boeing quickly filled the gap left by the withdrawal of the fleet. Eventually de Havilland was bought by a rival firm, and the name disappeared completely.

Clearly it's not easy for plane makers to suffer failure, or indeed to admit it. There's also a fine line between denial that results in miss-trust, and denial the results in disaster. Ford found that out in the 70s when they knowingly hid the fact that the Ford Pinto could explode in a rear-end collision. Their decision that a recall costing 11 dollars a car was more than possible law suits turned sour when they were given a six million dollar fine. From what I've read, the 787 faults are small, and the plane is well designed to cope with them, but all that registers with the flying public is: Plane on Fire.

Mercedes faced a similar situation back in 1997, When their 'baby-Merc' failed an hitherto little-known Moose Test. Put in the simplest terms, the car fell over when it swerved around a moose. The car maker could do little to counter the pictures of the car on its side, a sorry mess of glass and twisted metal. They quickly recalled all cars sold to date, and made significant modifications to keep it stable. The final message became 'these cars are really safe... now' and sales returned.

But can Boeing really do the same thing? Can they survive an admission that their dream is having a bit of a nightmare? In my book I focus on Trust, and the four elements that make it. For Boeing, I think two of those four are crucial - Honesty and Humility. From what I'm hearing, Boeing is doing precious little of either - it wasn't their decision to take the planes out of service, and their language is centred around the need to 'reassure' people of the planes' safety - skirting actually saying 'we are fixing them'.

Problems with the batteries emerged during testing in 2006, when one blew up - at the time, and now, Boeing said it wasn't the battery, it was the 'way the test was set up'. This does smack a little of the famous 'you're holding it wrong' response from Apple when the new iPhone model had signal issues when you held it... well, normally. We don't like it when we hear people avoiding the obvious, humbling truth, and it quickly destroys trust.

Of course, there's more balanced on the plane than just Boeing's trust - with jobs at stake and export figures for the US at risk. But all of those would pale into insignificance if you were sat on a 787 as it taxied for take-off. Behind closed doors it's likely that they are moving heaven and earth to address the issue. The problem is the language and tone they are using when they emerge from that door and talk to us.

Boeing needs to balance its number one position today, with the level of trust that would exist the day after a major accident with one of the planes that they have 'reassured' us are safe. Nothing hurts more than over confidence followed by catastrophe -remember, Harland and Wolfe told us the Titanic was unsinkable.

At the moment, with the aviation authorities being seen to be driving the actions to ensure the Dreamliner's safety, and Boeing being seen as having to comply, they really aren't winning anyone over.

 

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