Crisis at 30,000 Feet: Grading the CEO Responses to Boeing's Mid-Flight Blowout A breakdown of the public communications triangle between Boeing CEO, Dave Calhoun, United CEO, Scott Kirby, and Alaskian Airlines CEO, Ben Minicucci.

By Christopher Salvi

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

On January 5th, 2024, an alarming incident involving an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 necessitated an emergency landing due to a cabin blowout. This placed Boeing and its airline partners United Airlines and Alaska Airlines under intense scrutiny. Company CEOs Dave Calhoun, Scott Kirby, and Ben Minicucci each navigated their companies through challenging times with distinct approaches, focusing on safety, quality, and strategic adaptation. In the following analysis, Miguel Aponte and I explore the actions taken in response to the crisis, highlighting their leadership in addressing immediate concerns while eyeing long-term objectives.

Related: 10 Strategies for Businesses to Navigate and Thrive in Times of Crisis

Dave Calhoun, CEO of Boeing

Actions Taken:

  • Engagement with U.S. Senators: Met with senators to discuss the 737 MAX 9 grounding and address regulatory concerns.
  • Quality Assurance Stand-Down: Implemented a temporary pause in production to focus on quality checks and employee training.
  • Public Commitment to Quality Improvements: Announced initiatives to enhance quality control processes at Boeing.
  • Communication with Customers: Proactive outreach to airline customers to discuss issues and reassure them of Boeing's commitment to resolving problems.
  • Internal Review and Employee Engagement: Solicited ideas from employees for quality improvements and initiated an internal review process. Sent a letter to staff saying, "[he was] deeply sorry for the significant disruption and frustration for our customers."

Motivations and Impact:

  • Calhoun's actions are geared towards damage control, restoring confidence in Boeing's aircraft, and addressing safety concerns from regulators, customers, and the public. The engagement with senators and quality assurance initiatives are aimed at demonstrating Boeing's proactive approach to resolving the issues. However, these actions have led to production delays and financial impacts but are crucial for long-term trust and reliability.

Related: 4 Smart Strategies for Safeguarding Your Business and Brand Reputation in a Crisis

Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines

Actions Taken:

  • Public Criticism of Boeing: Voiced disappointment in Boeing's handling of the situation.
  • Exploring Alternative Fleet Plans: Indicated openness to considering other manufacturers for future fleet needs.
  • Internal Fleet Planning Adjustments: Removed Boeing MAX 10 jets from internal planning, indicating a shift in fleet strategy.
  • Direct Communication with Boeing: Held discussions with Boeing's CEO to express frustration and seek solutions.

Motivations and Impact:

  • Kirby's primary goal is to ensure United Airlines' operational reliability and financial stability. His public criticism and consideration of alternatives signal a strategic shift and put pressure on Boeing to address the issues more effectively. These actions also safeguard United's interests, offering flexibility in fleet management and potentially leveraging better terms with Boeing or alternatives with competitors like Airbus.

Ben Minicucci, CEO of Alaska Airlines

Actions Taken:

  • Blaming Boeing for Financial Losses: Publicly held Boeing responsible for the $150 million loss due to the grounding.
  • Expressing Anger and Frustration: Voiced strong emotions about the blowout incident on Alaska Airlines flight.
  • Future Fleet Planning Considerations: Suggested the possibility of reevaluating the airline's relationship with Boeing.
  • Demanding Higher Quality Aircraft: Called for Boeing to produce better planes and address manufacturing challenges.

Motivations and Impact:

  • Minicucci is focused on mitigating financial losses and operational disruptions for Alaska Airlines. By publicly blaming Boeing, he seeks to hold the manufacturer accountable and potentially negotiate compensation or better terms. His actions also reflect a commitment to safety and operational excellence, signaling to both the public and Boeing the airline's priorities and expectations.

Evaluating the Responses

In this intricate scenario, each CEO's actions reflect a strategic response to protect and advance their company's interests amid Boeing's 737 MAX 9 crisis. Dave Calhoun's focus is on restoring Boeing's reputation and ensuring long-term viability through quality improvements and regulatory compliance. Scott Kirby and Ben Minicucci are primarily concerned with maintaining operational stability, financial health, and safety standards, demonstrating a willingness to adapt their strategies, including considering alternatives to Boeing if necessary. These actions collectively underscore the intricate dynamics within the aviation industry, where safety, reliability, financial considerations, and strategic relationships play crucial roles in decision-making processes at the highest levels.

Related: A Guide to Effective Crisis Leadership — Key Steps to Lead Your Team Through Turbulent Times

What Leaders Can Learn

All CEOs involved have shown commendable leadership amidst challenges. CEOs need to be publicly vocal and demonstrate they care about the companies and businesses they represent. That being said, there is room for improvement on every party's end. Dave Calhoun needs to focus on increasing transparency to rebuild trust more effectively. Prioritizing safety and proactive future planning could secure Boeing's competitive edge in the long term. Within the last two decades, Boeing has been in the spotlight for tragedies involving MAX 8 planes. Dave must ensure they build planes that are up to standard. Scott Kirby has shown a willingness to adapt to crises showing his interests are what is best for United. To build upon this, improving communication with customers about safety measures could further strengthen brand loyalty for customers. Additionally, diversifying United's fleet would mitigate any dependency on Boeing. Ben Minicucci too has shown adaptation in the crisis and was critical of Boeing. Continuing the conversation of building safer, better planes will lead to safer flying throughout the aviation industry. Re-evaluating the choice of planes for Alaska Airline's fleet is an important decision that can lead to more growth opportunities in the future.
Christopher Salvi

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

CEO of Salvi

Christopher Salvi is CEO of Salvi, an executive communications and content agency. His main roles include advising clients in executive communications and leading the team to execute at the highest level. Salvi is also the executive producer of The CEO Series, facilitating guests and partnerships.

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