The recent travails of Boeing’s long-awaited flagship airliner, the 787, or “Dreamliner” as the company prematurely dubbed it, has been giving company officials as well as customers nightmares ever since the plane first went into service. Documented reports of battery fires, smoke in the cockpit, fuel leaks, batteries leaking electrolyte fluid and becoming discolored, funny smells in the cockpit, and cracked cockpit windows caused the FAA to follow the lead of their Japanese counterparts and ordered all 787s grounded. In the U.S., that amounted to only six planes in service for United; JAL (Japan Airlines) and All Nippon Airways grounded two dozen. In all, 50 planes have been delivered around the world, and Boeing has orders for some 800 more. The company’s stock has already dropped 3.7 percent, and will likely continue to fall until the crisis is resolved.
Not surprisingly, Boeing has vigorously defended the integrity of the planes, but has so far not offered any explanation – plausible or otherwise – to account for the problems. Cell phone videos, which have now gone viral, of Japanese passengers being evacuated from the 787 plane via those inflatable emergency slides does not bode well for the comfort-level factor.
How Boeing responds to its crisis now will determine the ultimate success or failure of the plane. And in so doing, Boeing should look to the automobile industry for important do’s and don’ts lessons in how to handle a safety crisis.
For example, automobile manufacturers who have suffered from cases of sudden unintended acceleration accusations usually wound up blaming their own customers, charging them with doing something stupid or by accident, such as stomping on the gas pedal when they really meant to hit the brake. The vehement denials of the customers paint the picture of the automaker being in the wrong and trying to bully the car owners. Meanwhile, after months and months of government investigation, often it turns out the carmaker was correct: it was driver error. But few people remember this. The image of the carmaker as the villain usually lingers.
It’s a question of perception. And, in the pitched battle between perception and reality perception always wins. That is a lesson Boeing cannot afford to lose, for whatever Boeing thinks of its 787s, if the reality doesn’t match the perception, they will be in trouble.
What this means for Boeing is they it has to change global perception, even if they don’t agree with it. One of the accusations has been lodged specifically against the new lithium-ion batteries that caught fire last week in Boston. The batteries are lighter than other batteries, and can be recharged more quickly, but Boeing engineers admit there is a risk of fire if the batteries are overheated. Even so, Boeing stands behind the batteries, but perhaps they shouldn’t. It may be time to replace all of the batteries with new and maybe different types of batteries so that the perception and the reality merge onto the same page: Here is the problem and here is how we’re fixing it.
Boeing’s customers and passengers need to feel substantive corrective measures have been implemented. It is the only way to make reality and perception mesh.
The caveat, of course, is that this comes after checking every other thing on the big bird.