Two conflicting approaches on those Boeing 737 MAX crashes

Photo: Dipankar Bhakta via YouTube

Boeing and its airline customers are in a tough situation. Plane crashes are very rare — planes are safer than ever — but in the wake of two crashes of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, they need to both reassure people and indicate that they’re taking steps to solve the problem.

Boeing clearly has a disciplined PR plan for a problem like this. The company was actually in the process of updating its flight software after the first crash, in Indonesia, when the second crash in Ethiopia happened. Here’s what Boeing said after the FAA grounded all the 737 MAX planes:

In Consultation with the FAA, NTSB and its Customers, Boeing Supports Action to Temporarily Ground 737 MAX Operations

CHICAGOMarch 13, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Boeing (NYSE: BA) continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX.  However, after consultation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft. 

“On behalf of the entire Boeing team, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives in these two tragic accidents,” said Dennis Muilenburg, president, CEO, Chairman of The Boeing Company.

“We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution. Safety is a core value at Boeing for as long as we have been building airplanes; and it always will be. There is no greater priority for our company and our industry. We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

Boeing makes this recommendation and supports the decision by the FAA.

What else could Boeing say? The company cannot take responsibility for the crashes — until the investigation is over, that would be premature. But it’s necessary to comply with the FAA, and any statement defending the aircraft would also be premature. The only possible result is a statement of sympathy and grounding the planes out of “an abundance of caution.” Notice that the statement is short and contains no passive voice. Arguably, the only weasel word is “deepest.”

Here’s Boeing’s next statement:

Boeing CEO Muilenburg Issues Statement on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 Accident Investigation

CHICAGOMarch 17, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg issued the following statement regarding the report from Ethiopian Transport Minister Dagmawit Moges today.

First and foremost, our deepest sympathies are with the families and loved ones of those onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

Boeing continues to support the investigation, and is working with the authorities to evaluate new information as it becomes available. Safety is our highest priority as we design, build and support our airplanes.  As part of our standard practice following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate, institute product updates to further improve safety.  While investigators continue to work to establish definitive conclusions, Boeing is finalizing its development of a previously-announced software update and pilot training revision that will address the MCAS flight control law’s behavior in response to erroneous sensor inputs.  We also continue to provide technical assistance at the request of and under the direction of the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Accredited Representative working with Ethiopian investigators.

In accordance with international protocol, all inquiries about the ongoing accident investigation must be directed to the investigating authorities.

Here “must be directed” is passive, and we again have “deepest sympathies,” but there is an actual fact: Boeing states that it is finalizing a software and training update. Again the statement is short and doesn’t attempt to justify anything.

Let’s contrast this to the statement from Gary Kelly, president of Southwest Airlines, which operates 34 of the affected planes:

A message from our CEO, Gary Kelly

I want to provide you a quick update on the Boeing MAX airplane. This was the aircraft type that was involved in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accident that occurred on March 10. Any time there is a loss of life it is tragic, and our hearts go out to all those affected. The accident is under investigation, but very little is known days later about the cause, and that is a concern. Whether the cause is linked to the earlier Lion Air accident remains a key, unanswered question.

Since Sunday, we have been continually working with the FAA, Boeing, and others within the U.S. government. I have been in contact daily. Effective March 13th, the FAA issued its order to ground the MAX, with our knowledge and support. Boeing agrees as well. We have removed the 34 MAX aircraft from service; they will remain out of service until the FAA rescinds this order. With more than 750 aircraft in our fleet, more than 95 percent of our aircraft are unaffected by this order.

Safety is our top priority. It always has been. It always must be. Our commitment to the Safety of our Employees and our Customers is unwavering and uncompromising. U.S. airlines operate within the most advanced, regulated aviation system in the world. The FAA provides independent oversight that governs the planes we fly and how we fly them. Every detail about the systems used to operate the aircraft are designed, engineered, manufactured, and operated according to that independent oversight.

Boeing has a rich, storied history of success in aerospace, and they are a talented and major part of this advanced aviation system. Southwest® has a long history with the 737 and a stellar safety record. In 48 years, it’s the only aircraft we’ve flown. We’ve been part of the Boeing 737 story as it’s developed over time. The MAX is the latest version—rather than an all-new aircraft.

Our experience with the MAX, along with the other U.S. operators, has been phenomenal. We’ve operated over 40,000 flights covering almost 90,000 hours. There is a ton of data collected, which we continuously monitor. In all of our analysis since our first flight in 2017, nothing has presented any flight safety concerns. It has been a superb addition to our fleet. It is also important to add that all Pilots at Southwest are deeply experienced and highly trained, as they are at our other U.S. counterparts that fly the MAX. Our Mechanics are also highly experienced and trained to safely maintain every airplane in our fleet.

Based on all the extensive data that we, our U.S. counterparts, and the FAA have access to, there is no reason to question the safety of our MAX airplanes. That makes sense because that’s the way our aerospace and aviation system is designed to work. History proves—air travel is extraordinarily safe.

Which takes us to the question of, what happened with Ethiopian Flight 302? We don’t know. We aren’t learning fast enough. So, we have a temporary grounding.

I realize this disruption will inconvenience our Customers during this busy spring travel season, and we will do everything in our power to mitigate the impact to our operation. For that, I offer my sincere apologies. To support our Customers, we are offering flexible rebooking policies for any Customer booked on a canceled flight.

Nothing is more sacred to all of our Southwest Family Members than the trust our Customers place in our airline every day, on every flight. You have our commitment to minimize the disruptions to our Customers’ travel plans, while adhering to the FAA’s requirements and ensuring the Safety of our fleet.

Thank you for your patience and understanding. We will provide frequent updates to you as this story develops.

This isn’t bad. But it’s trying a bit too hard. Southwest has to get across two ideas: first, the planes are and always have been safe, and second, we need to ground the planes for safety. These are obviously in conflict. But the more you say about them, the worse it gets — it’s a case of “thou dost protest too much.”

My problems with this statement are these:

  • Leading with “we don’t know much” casts the whole statement in a questionable light. It’s always best to lead with a summary sentence. In this case, that would be, “We are grounding the 737 MAX aircraft to carefully check what’s happening with them, but as far as we can tell from thousands of flights that we’ve operated, they are perfectly safe.”
  • There is not an excess of passive voice in this statement, but what is here (“is known,” “is linked,” “are unaffected,” “are designed, etc.”) makes it seem like this is something that is happening to Southwest, rather than actions that Southwest is taking. This subtly undermines the directness and believability of the statement.
  • What’s with the randomly capitalized words (“Safety,” “Customers,” “Pilots,” “Mechanics”)? This isn’t an Eighteenth Century political screed. It’s positively Trumpian. And it’s a baroque distraction in a communication like this.
  • In the second paragraph, Kelly states that the FAA has grounded the aircraft and Boeing agrees. He makes no statement indicating whether Southwest agrees as well. Since he is making two contradictory cases (“they’re safe” and “we’re grounding them”), this raises questions about Southwest’s commitment to safety. Later in the letter, he says “there is no reason to question the safety of our MAX airplanes.” This is wrong: with two crashes in a short time that have worrying similarities, and with the FAA grounding the aircraft, of course there is a reason to question their safety. (If he really was committed, he would have capitalized “Safety” in this passage — hmm, quite telling.)
  • The third paragraph about safety (er, Safety) is pretty much what you’d expect in a communication like this, but Kelly doesn’t stop there. He goes on to talk about the rich and storied history of Boeing, the phenomenal safety record of the 737 MAX, the ton of data collected, the deeply experienced and highly trained pilots, and the highly experienced and trained mechanics. The more of this you state, the less convincing you are; every “deeply” and “highly” makes things worse. Better to collapse these three paragraphs into one short and pointed statement about safety.

This letter is a muddle. It says “We don’t know what crashed those planes, but ours are safe, even though the FAA and Boeing have grounded them.” Kelly can’t outright call the FAA wrong, but even if he believes that, this is no place to say it. In this letter to customers, the only job is to tell them they are safe, Southwest is operating safely, and Southwest will help them if their flights are cancelled.

Take note. This is the worst kind of crisis — one that involves potential loss of life as well as business disruption. In this environment, short, factual statements like Boeing’s are best. Folksy, overblown prose that comes close to questioning the authorities doesn’t belong in a letter intended to reassure customers.

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  1. Josh, you rightly asked “What’s with the randomly capitalized words (“Safety,” “Customers,” “Pilots,” “Mechanics”)?”

    It’s a Southwest communications “style” practice. Southwest capitalizes certain nouns, including Safety, Customer, Employees, Pilots, Flight Attendants, and Mechanics. I agree that it looks odd, and it doesn’t always seem sincere.

    As for the letter itself, it struck me as inadequate.

    The 737 MAX grounding isn’t due to Southwest. However, during the past four or five weeks, Southwest has been publicly profiled for alleged maintenance/safety problems.

    Southwest is in a labor dispute with its mechanics – sorry, Mechanics – who have been working without a contract for seven years. Southwest’s mechanics assert the airline pressures them into not reporting certain maintenance problems and/or pulling aircraft from service when mechanics feel it’s justifiable to do so. Southwest asserts its planes are safe — and I don’t know a pilot, on any airline, who would knowingly fly a plane they don’t believe to be safe. Unfortunately, the situation became so dire that the week before the Ethiopian crash, the FAA sent a “safety risk” letter to both Southwest and the union representing its mechanics (AMFA).

    Plus, it doesn’t help Southwest that the FAA also recently cited it for inaccurately tracking the weight of the checked bags loaded onto its flights.

    As the subject of multiple alleged safety problems, IMO Southwest needed to write a very different letter than the one they sent.

  2. Its a bit crazy that no one mentions the hack folks here. Remote-access, duh.
    Of course, that’s terribly scary…yet, 2084 approaches…a hundred years late.

    Thanks for the publishing info.