Boeing has fired its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, in the face of the ongoing crisis over its 737 Max planes. Even so, Boeing’s choice of David Calhoun as replacement suggests that the company won’t fix its systemic problems. It doesn’t even seem to know they need fixing.
Two days before Christmas, Boeing announced the departure of its embattled CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, to be replaced by David Calhoun, the current chairman of the board, who also oversees portfolio operations at the private equity firm Blackstone. Muilenburg is leaving immediately, while Calhoun will wind down his responsibilities at Blackstone and take over as Boeing CEO on January 13. The company’s CFO, Greg Smith, will act as interim CEO until then.
Dismissing Muilenburg was an important and necessary step for Boeing. Arguably, whoever was CEO when the company built its 737 Max planes was going to have to leave after the design and software system of those planes caused two crashes in five months, killing a total of 346 people. But Muilenburg’s own actions made his departure truly inevitable. He apologized to family members of those lost in the crashes but without taking responsibility for his company’s part in those tragedies. He initially blamed the planes’ pilots — who are victims and no longer here to defend themselves — for the crashes. Then, when most countries including the United States grounded the Max, Muilenburg tried to pressure the FAA into letting them fly again, even though his company had not yet provided a promised explanation for how it would make its MCAS system safer. It’s been clear for a while that he had to go.
But Muilenburg was not the only problem at Boeing. Report after report, statements from whistleblowers, and independent investigations have all led to the same conclusion: The company has repeatedly prioritized profits over safety, even as it proudly declared over and over that “safety is our highest priority.” Disturbingly, this profits-over-safety ethos seems to have affected more than just the 737 Max. Safety concerns have also been raised about Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner planes and about the South Carolina plant that produced them. No Dreamliner has been involved in a fatal accident, but problems with the planes’ lithium-ion batteries caused fires to break out on two occasions, resulting in the grounding of that model for three months.
Obviously, Boeing has a safety problem. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be obvious to Boeing. Instead, the company seems to think it has a communications problem and a public image problem. Here’s how the company explained its change of CEO in a public statement:
The Board of Directors decided that a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the Company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.
Under the Company’s new leadership, Boeing will operate with a renewed commitment to full transparency, including effective and proactive communication with the FAA, other global regulators and its customers.
At a time when safety truly should be Boeing’s highest priority, it seems to be focusing its attention instead on better communications, greater transparency, and restoring confidence. Greater transparency and better communications are certainly good things. So is repairing relationships. But first and foremost, Boeing needs to answer questions about how it came to build at least one line of planes that is unsafe, and explain what changes it will make so that the Max, the Dreamliner, and every other Boeing plane going forward is as safe as it’s possible to be. To accomplish this, the company will need to change not only its design and manufacturing practices but also its culture.
Until that happens, Boeing can work to restore confidence, but it won’t really deserve that confidence. And any trust it gains is likely to be shattered the next time one of its planes goes down.