Just a few years ago, an aircraft-industry expert envisioning a possible “game over” future for Boeing would have been inconceivable.
Yet when new Boeing CEO David Calhoun took the reins Monday, that gloomy assessment — from respected analyst Richard Aboulafia — coldly laid out what’s at stake. Boeing’s apparent disastrous pursuit of profits over principles, via a cultural shift away from industry-leading safety standards, has brought a hard reckoning.
Following two crashes that killed 346 people, the revelations of shortcuts and obfuscation illustrate how badly Boeing lost its way. The stock price, which peaked at $446 just before the second crash last March, has dropped about 25% since then. Abysmal sales figures, idled production lines and the still-parked 737 fleet further tell the grim story.
The public examination of the 737 MAX debacle revealed symptoms of corporate decline that should have triggered drastic change long ago. The 117 pages of internal messages from 2015-18 released Jan. 9 show how deeply mistrust and cynicism spread among Boeing employees. The frank worker-to-worker assessments of shoddy safety oversight, easily misled regulators and profit-driven haste add damning detail to Boeing’s existential crisis.
One employee, writing in 2018, lamented a hard-deadline, bottom-dollar mentality they found pervasive:
“I don’t know how to fix these things … It’s systemic. It’s culture. It’s the fact that we have a senior leadership team that understand[s] very little about the business and yet are driving us to certain objectives.”
Calhoun and other Boeing leaders must restore the principled vision Boeing embraced for decades atop the world’s aviation industry. The voluntary release of the messages shows Calhoun and interim CEO Greg Smith comprehend the importance of openness.
Follow-through for a change agenda will be more difficult. Calhoun has been on Boeing’s board since 2009 and comes from high levels of the business world. The failures at Boeing trace back to a corporate disregard for thoroughly sound engineering practices. The hard path to redemption requires product investment and the restoration of functional oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration. Cost-cutting must take a back seat to reinstituting diligent processes that once won Boeing global admiration.
Calhoun and Boeing leadership must methodically rebuild the company’s culture and openly state the plan. Employees and stockholders need to see how they fit into the work of righting the company. Washington’s taxpayers deserve a full public accounting as well, because Boeing is still benefiting from an unprecedented tax break.
On his first day, Calhoun sent an open letter to all Boeing employees short on details but long on high-minded goals. The message discussed rebuilding trust and investing in the future to safely return the 737 MAX to service. As part of the “recommitment to transparency” the letter also promised, Calhoun must ensure all workers and managers understand their role in this broad-based change. Boeing’s immense systematic failings require a cultural change that only strong visible leadership can deliver.