Though Boeing has been mired in the worst of times, its people stunned by two fatal crashes and then a global pandemic that has slashed air travel like never before, jet sales chief Ihssane Mounir last week professed an unshakable confidence that the best of times are within sight again.
“This pandemic that we’re living through right now, it’s more dramatic than any other shock the system has had, certainly in the past 30 years or so,” Mounir said. “It doesn’t compare to anything we’ve seen in the past, it really doesn’t.”
And following the 737 MAX crashes, he said, “It’s definitely been a journey to make sure that people regain their trust in us.”
Yet he said Boeing has already managed to regain the trust of the airline customers he deals with daily. And Mounir anticipates they’ll order more MAXs now that the world is beginning to emerge from the freeze on air travel.
“We are definitely coming out of it,” he said. “Personally, I’m optimistic.”
Mounir gave an exclusive interview in his new corner office, its windows offering a view that sweeps from the flight line at Renton airport, where more than a dozen MAXs are parked, to the adjacent final assembly plant where those jets are built.
The location is a result of the company crisis. He’s moved there because Boeing has put multiple properties up for sale, including the former Commercial Airplanes headquarters at nearby Longacres where his office used to be.
While the view is super, the building is being extensively remodeled inside for employees yet to move in, and Mounir’s floor remains largely empty.
A soaring star at Boeing
Boeing executives, whether at its Chicago headquarters or in Seattle, have given few interviews during the maelstrom that began in spring 2019 when the MAX was grounded worldwide following the crash in Ethiopia, less than five months after the first crash in Indonesia.
Stan Deal, the head of Commercial Airplanes, after almost two years at the helm, has given brief comments to the media at a few events but granted not a single extensive interview. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has even stopped taking media questions at the quarterly earnings teleconferences.
Mounir, a charismatic personality with a cosmopolitan depth and the confidence of a successful salesman, is the first local executive to open up.
Born in Morocco, he came to the U.S. at 17, fluent in Arabic, French and Spanish. But he needed a crash course in English at a language school before he was accepted at Wichita State University in Kansas, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering.
Mounir joined Boeing in 1997 as a senior aerodynamics engineer, then moved to the business side. He sold jets in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Russia before rising to head sales in Boeing’s most important market, covering China, Korea and Japan. He took over the entire sales organization in 2016.
Before 2019, during the aviation boom years, his career seemed destined to soar untroubled by serious turbulence.
Now, sporting a COVID-19-era salt-and-pepper beard and turning 50 next month, he’s trying to pull Boeing through the worst sales bust in modern memory while hampered by persistent quality issues on the production side.
His bestselling jets ought to be the MAX and the 787 Dreamliner. The MAX is still ramping up after its 21-month grounding. And while Boeing delivered 158 widebody Dreamliners in 2019, it has managed to deliver only 24 of the jets over the last 12 months.
Deliveries of the 787 were halted for most of that time after engineers discovered manufacturing defects at the joins of the airplane’s carbon composite fuselage, critical pressure bulkheads and other structural joins.
Deliveries remain held up while the Federal Aviation Administration considers the adequacy of Boeing’s proposed inspection regimen. Delivery isn’t expected to resume earlier than late October.
With the MAX grounded for close to two years by the fatal crashes, followed by the pandemic-driven collapse of demand for all airplanes, the manufacturing quality problems appear like the affliction of Job in the Old Testament, testing Boeing’s strength and resilience to the limit.
Mounir said he joined the entire Commercial Airplanes leadership team last week on a trip to the Dreamliner fuselage and final assembly plants in North Charleston, South Carolina, “getting the 787 back in line.”
The pandemic cramped the lives of superstar jet salesmen as it did everyone else, grinding to a stop Mounir’s punishing pre-pandemic travel schedule.
“The entire sales team, every one of us, went from being gone two to three weeks a month to not going anywhere,” he said. “Like everybody else, we discovered how to use Zoom, and Teams, and all these other means to communicate.”
Yet, he sees light ahead now.
As the U.S. has opened up, “domestically we’ve been traveling quite frequently for the past several months now.”
And though international air passenger travel remains at only a quarter of what it was in 2019, that is beginning to shift slightly. The U.S. has just opened up to fully vaccinated European travelers, and Mounir and his team have resumed some international travel.
“There was a team of us in Europe last week. We went to the U.K., to France, to Germany, to Spain. We’ve made a couple of forays to Asia; we’ve been to Singapore, Azerbaijan; we’ve been to the Middle East,” he said. “So it’s starting to happen.”
While his airline customers until recently were focused on conserving cash to survive, Mounir said he now sees them “getting back to doing business, getting back to growth.”
He cited Alaska Airlines, which has placed new orders for 48 more MAXs since the jet returned to service. Seattle’s hometown carrier, he said, is “reshaping everything they’re doing, and taking advantage of this pause in traffic … to rework their cost structure, renew the fleet and address their efficiency.”
He dismissed as temporary the 60% market share lead that the Airbus A320neo family has taken over the MAX, largely thanks to blockbuster sales of the largest A321neo model.
While that plane has more seats and more range than the largest MAX model, the MAX 10, Mounir argues that most airlines don’t need all that range and that many will prefer the MAX 10’s better per-seat economics.
And in the market for bigger widebody jets, he’s confident that when 787 deliveries resume, the uptick in international travel will renew the fortunes of that airplane and lead to more orders there too.
“When people start seeing the recovery taking a foothold in the international market, I have no doubt in my mind that the 787 will do just as well as we’ve been doing on the 737 in the last few months,” Mounir said.
He also dropped a large hint that a freighter model of the forthcoming giant 777X jet will be launched soon. Qatar Airways is one airline known to be interested.
“We have several customers talking to us about … the 777FX,” Mounir said. “Watch this space. Things are gonna happen.”
And what of the critical Chinese airline market, which has taken fully a quarter of Boeing’s jet output in recent years, but where extreme tension between the U.S. and China is preventing new sales today?
Mounir, experienced in China, is unfazed.
“We’ve always looked at China as a long game,” he said.
“We’re going through a rough patch right now. But … history tells us that we always
get over that, in some fashion, because the movement of goods is just as important to China as it is to us, the movement of people is just as important to China as it is to us,” Mounir said. “Our growth depends on theirs, and their growth depends on ours.”
“Sometimes it takes a little zigzag, where we are right now, but we will eventually get there,” he added. “I think we’re going to be OK in China.”
Restoring trust in Boeing?
Mounir’s optimism about aviation’s long-term future is shared by most in the industry. The decades-long upward trajectory of global passenger traffic is steadily fueled by rising incomes in emerging economies around the world.
“We will always need airplanes to move people around and move goods around,” he said. “We’re lifers. We believe in this.”
Less clear is Boeing’s own trajectory and whether it can regain its place as the world’s premier jet manufacturer. The MAX crashes and Boeing’s response to them have tarnished its prior reputation for engineering prowess and technical quality.
The FAA is showing a new unwillingness to trust Boeing’s word, forcing the halt to 787 deliveries and extending the certification process for the forthcoming 777X.
Mounir said Boeing has worked to rebuild trust by fixing the flaws in the MAX and being transparent with the FAA, foreign regulators and airlines.
“We’ve listened, we’ve learned. We’ve made the changes that we needed
to make,” he said. “We’ve made hardware changes, we’ve made software changes, we’ve made [pilot] training changes. And we’ve tested them every which way to Sunday.”
He cited the more than 300 MAXs now flying worldwide and the big MAX orders from United, Southwest and Alaska since December as evidence that airlines now trust the airplane and trust Boeing again.
“We are imposing on ourselves very, very strong standards to make sure that we don’t leave any doubt in anybody’s mind that we have reliable, safe, high-quality products,” Mounir said.
Boeing presents its decision to not deliver any 787s until those manufacturing defects are dealt with, even though they are not considered immediate safety issues, as an illustration of those strong standards rather than evidence of sloppy quality.
“You’re asking if it’s difficult. Look, it’s what we do,” Mounir said. “We have decades of history, of designing, building, delivering great products with a great safety record, with great performance. And we learn from events. … We learn and we move on.”
With the crashes front of mind, Mounir pointed to the aspect of this business that isn’t just business.
“We don’t just make and sell the airplanes,” he said. “We also fly in the
airplanes. We have our loved ones flying in the airplanes. We have our families who fly in the airplanes.”
“You know we drive home at the end of the day to go live in the same neighborhood,” Mounir added. “Everybody knows we’re Boeing. Yeah. It’s personal.”