‘Safety, safety, safety’: Boeing shakes up leadership in bid to stem crisis

Seattle, United States – For those watching developments at Boeing, the question was not whether there was going to be a shake-up at the top, but when.

When Boeing announced on Monday that its CEO Dave Calhoun would be stepping down at the end of the year, some wondered why it had taken so long.

Calhoun, 66, was appointed in 2020 to revive the company’s fortunes amid one of the worst public trust crises in its 100-year-old history, following two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 MAX jets in 2018 and 2019.

The crashes killed 346 people and resulted in the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX globally for months. 

Then in January, a door plug blew out of the side of an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX, forcing pilots to take emergency measures. 

The incident reinforced perceptions that the company had not learned any lessons and presided over a culture where safety placed second fiddle to profitability.

Barry Valentine, a former senior official with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), said Boeing’s management was traditionally composed of engineers, but that changed as the company responded to new rivals such as France-based Airbus, which was created in 2000.

“It went from being a company of engineers to a company of accountants,” Valentine told Al Jazeera.

With the FAA and Department of Justice already investigating Boeing, the company will need to show it is listening and is serious about changing things, Valentine said.

“The three most important things in real estate are location, location and location. In air transportation it’s safety, safety and safety,” he said.

“At the end of the day, if people don’t think you’re safe, they’re not going to get on. So there is an incentive to have a good safety record.”

In addition to Calhoun’s departure, Boeing is to lose board chair Larry Kellner and Stan Deal, the head of the company’s commercial planes business. Deal is being replaced by Stephanie Pope, Boeing’s chief operating officer.

In a letter to employees on Monday, Calhoun termed the Alaska Airlines incident “a watershed moment for Boeing”.

“The eyes of the world are on us,” he said. “We are going to fix what isn’t working, and we are going to get our company back on the track towards recovery and stability.”

Sean O’Keefe, who served as chairman of the European aircraft maker Airbus Group Inc and now teaches at Syracuse University in New York, said whoever is appointed at Boeing will need to be able to listen to the concerns of the industry.

In particular, they will need to work hand in hand with its airline customers – from Alaska Airlines to United – to make sure safety issues will be the focus in the months ahead, O’Keefe said.

“It will be collaborating more than consulting with Boeing saying, ‘Okay, you tell me what it is that’s going to raise your confidence that we know what we’re doing here’,” O’Keefe told AL Jazeera.

“You need to be able to listen carefully and put together a comprehensive strategy that will respond to what will most likely be multiple different voices.”

Boeing is currently being sued by several dozen passengers who were onboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 en route from Portland International Airport to Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County, California, on January 5.

The FAA temporarily grounded some models of the Boeing 737 Max 9 following the incident. An initial probe by the National Transportation Safety Board found no bolts had been installed to secure the plug.

Both Boeing and Alaska Airlines have denied any wrongdoing.

Ed Pierson, a former Boeing whistleblower, said he had not been surprised by the incident.

“The reason we weren’t surprised is because we’ve been watching this unfold now for several years, and we’ve had a lot of production quality defects that have come to light in the last couple of years,” Pierson, who now heads The Foundation for Aviation Safety, told Al Jazeera.

Pierson, a former senior manager who first spoke out against Boeing in the aftermath of the fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, added: “It’s clearly a massive leadership failure. And it was predictable.”

In addition to announcing Calhoun’s departure, Boeing said Steve Mollenkopf, the former CEO of tech company Qualcomm, had been appointed the new chair of the board and tasked with the search for the next CEO.

Shem Malmquist, a current Boeing pilot who teaches at the Florida Institute of Technology, said he hopes Boeing decides to appoint an engineer to the top job, although shareholders may instinctively resist such an idea.

The last engineer to serve as CEO was Philip Condit, who had the job from 1996 to 2003.  Departing CEO Calhoun has a degree in accounting.

“I think at this point, the company is taking such a beating the shareholders are going to be looking for anything that’s going to give some stability,”  Malmquist told Al Jazeera.

“The smart move would be pulling somebody from within the company and from within the engineering section, not somebody from marketing, not somebody from finance. Someone from engineering.”

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