Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE

It was long in coming, but Boeing finally responded to the crash that killed 157 people in Ethiopia with something that resembled accountability. It is a shame that it took almost a month. 

For the families of the victims of an earlier crash involving the company’s top-selling 737 Max 8 plane, in Indonesia in October 2018, the wait for an apology has been even longer.

The reputation of the company and its regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), probably will not recover anytime soon from the knock it took from their initial reaction, which sought to minimise similarities between the two crashes and showed a lack of sensitivity to the victims.

The problem is that there was nothing ‘proactive’ about its decision to finally withdraw the planes

Although some countries, such as China and Indonesia, moved quickly to ground the aircraft in the wake of the crash in Addis Ababa, the initial response from Boeing and the FAA meant that the aircraft were kept in the air longer than should have been the case and even more travellers were potentially placed in danger.

The company finally admitted late last week that a key sensor had malfunctioned — after a preliminary report showed that the fault sparked a series of events that led to the loss of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — and that the pilots were not at fault. The report released by the Ethiopian government showed they had followed all the airline manufacturer’s emergency guidelines but were powerless to prevent the tragedy.

From the start, the reaction from Boeing and the FAA seemed to be more concerned with the company’s commercial interests — the 737 plane accounts for about a third of profits — rather than passenger safety. It was only four days after the Ethiopia crash that Boeing took what it described as a “proactive step out of an abundance of caution”.

The problem is that there was nothing “proactive” about its decision to finally withdraw the planes. It was taken out of its hands and even this was done after much of the rest of the world had decided to act.

Those countries and airlines acted despite, and not because of, advice from Boeing and the FAA, which had insisted that the planes were sound. Some, under the impression, which proved to be mistaken, that one could take regulators at their word, continued to fly the planes for a couple of days. Thankfully, there were not more disasters in the interim.

It is a good thing that Boeing has finally taken responsibility, but questions about why it took so long will persist.

The apology by CEO Dennis Muilenburg will sound less than convincing without a full explanation of what the company knew and when.

There might be an argument that it was prudent to wait for the investigation into the latest crash to make a pronouncement on the cause, but the one in Indonesia took place five months ago. If it was downed by the same fault that condemned the Ethiopian Airlines jet, why wasn’t the fault identified then and something done to correct it? That could have saved the lives lost in Addis Ababa. Is someone going to be held accountable?

The consequences for the company may be dire and long lasting, and rightly so.

Just a day after the release of the preliminary report into the March crash, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told Bloomberg that the company was reconsidering its existing order of 25 Boeing 737 Max jets, citing the stigma surrounding the aircraft, which may make it hard to convince customers and pilots to use it. Boeing is also facing a lawsuit in the US from the family of one of the victims of the Addis Ababa crash, who accused it of putting profits over safety.

For Boeing, the road to regaining public trust is probably going to be a long one. Acting in a much more transparent manner, rather than waiting for regulators, will only be a start. It is going to need to demonstrate that its claim to being driven by “enduring values, with a focus on safety, integrity and quality” is not just a marketing catch phrase.