Zach Olsen
Zach Olsen

An Ethiopian Airlines flight — a Boeing 737 Max 8 — crashed on March 10, killing all on board. The fatal crash is the second in five months for this model of Boeing plane, after a Lion Air flight accident last October, also killing all passengers and crew.

For the families that are impacted, the tragedy is profound. Around the world, airlines and aviation authorities are reacting in different ways. There are investigations, confusion and the logistical nightmares of ticket refunds, rescheduling and more. As a result of it all, there is a brewing crisis in confidence that could not only impact the Boeing brand, but have ramifications for the entire industry.

Responses so far

Due to concerns about apparent similarities between the crashes, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Oman, Turkey, Iceland and the European Union acted fast and grounded all 737 Max 8 planes; about a dozen airlines followed suit. 

The US and the FAA hesitated to act, along with carriers including Southwest, American, Air Canada and WestJet. For several days no formal statement (press release or other) was issued by airlines continuing use of the Max 8 as to why they believed the risk was worth taking. Rather, airlines appeared to have chosen to respond piecemeal to media inquiries with simple “confidence” statements summarized in this article.

Presumably these airlines were taking this course of action in an effort to avoid stoking more concern. However, the dichotomy between the two extremes of response (grounding vs. barely a statement) created a problematic dissonance. Good crisis communications is contingent upon avoiding such dichotomies; where chasms between explanations exist, brands fall and can fall fast, whether the decision ends up being wrong or not.

In the end — on March 13 — the US announced the grounding of the planes. Why the decision was delayed when others acted swiftly, and the PR ramifications of this delay, remain to be seen, but the delay does not look good for American aviation.

Transparency’s role

A transparent approach to learning from failure is as fundamental to problem-solving (making sure it doesn’t happen again) as it is to the discipline of crisis communications. A brand wanting to win back confidence must prove that it has learned from its mistake and implemented changes.

Relatedly, failure (and attendant crisis) often arises because of a lack of transparency. In the Boeing situation, a recent article in The New York Times suggests that a rush to bring the new planes to market may have led to the decision to not provide additional training to pilots on the planes’ new stabilizing technology. Essentially, the paper reports, pilots were not aware that the technology had been added. And, as it turns out, this technology is being investigated as a possible cause of the crashes.

The airlines appear to be suggesting that the existence of the technology is immaterial; that it should not have altered how pilots should handle stabilization in the event of a problem. However, public confidence in the industry is predicated upon transparency. The fact that it appears pilots were not fully briefed will likely be a long-term issue for the industry, no matter what is ultimately determined to have caused the crashes.

Implications for the industry

Matthew Syed’s seminal book Black Box Thinking is a recommended read for crisis practitioners. The book zeros in on the importance of transparency to effective problem-solving, and it does so by using the example of the aviation industry’s invention of the black box (virtually indestructible devices that carry voice and data recordings of what transpires inside a cockpit prior to a crash).

Syed lauds aviation’s transparent approach to learning from failure as the gold standard. He contrasts this “black box thinking” with the approach taken in other industries riddled with problems, such as healthcare. (In the United States, medical errors kill more people than traffic accidents, and the industry struggles to learn from mistakes and better itself.) As a result of this transparent approach, public confidence in air travel has traditionally been high. According to the book:

“Whenever there’s any sort of mishap, major or minor, the box is opened, the data is analyzed, and experts figure out exactly what went wrong,” according to the publisher’s synopsis of Black Box Thinking. “Then the facts are published and procedures are changed, so the same mistakes won’t happen again. By applying this method in recent decades, the industry has created an astonishingly good safety record.”

There’s no doubt that the crisis at Boeing and the trickle down to its customer airlines — with its geographic reach; complex web of stakeholders sending mixed messages; finger pointing between the pilots union, FAA, airlines and the manufacturer; and the grounding of planes — will have a significant financial impact on the airline industry.

How fundamentally the crisis shakes public confidence in the industry as a whole remains to be seen. But what’s certain is the longer the perception of inaction remains, the more profound the potential for long-term damage. Thus the grounding stateside was a good decision, albeit a late one. 

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Zach Olsen is the San Francisco-based president of Infinite Globalwhich was recently named the “Best PR and Crisis Management Firm” in the nation by the National Law Journal. Infinite provides PR, content and branding counsel to organizations and individuals in the professional services market in the U.S., UK, EU and beyond.