Business World

Thursday 19 September 2019

Julie Johnsson: 'Muilenburg working on a wing and a prayer to salvage Boeing's reputation'

Pressure: Boeing chief David Muilenburg at the Farnborough Airshow in London last summer. Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Pressure: Boeing chief David Muilenburg at the Farnborough Airshow in London last summer. Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Julie Johnsson in Chicago

Dennis Muilenburg is used to presiding over sleepy annual meetings as chief executive officer of Boeing Co, basking in the glow of a soaring share price.

This year, the aerospace giant's chief executive can expect a grilling from investors and reporters. Outside the Chicago gathering, protesters are expected to rebuke the company for a safety crisis that has engulfed the best-selling jet of the world's largest plane-maker.

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Until an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 slammed into the ground shortly after take-off on March 10, Muilenburg's Boeing had dominated the Dow Jones Industrial Average with a strategy best known for containing risk and returning cash to investors. Boeing still trails only Microsoft Corp in share gains on the 30-member Dow since Muilenburg took over in July 2015.

The questions may sharpen following a report of four calls to a whistleblower hotline at the Federal Aviation Administration the day after the Ethiopia crash.

The calls, CNN reported Saturday, were from current and former Boeing employees concerned about the sensor that measures the plane's angle while flying.

At least one complaint alleged damage to the vane's wiring by a "foreign object", CNN reported. A malfunction of the Max's sensor has been cited in a preliminary report on the crash by Ethiopian investigators.

Process: Employees work on the Boeing 737 Max aeroplane at Boeing Renton, Washington, last month. Photo: JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images
Process: Employees work on the Boeing 737 Max aeroplane at Boeing Renton, Washington, last month. Photo: JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

Now, stock buybacks are on hold and executives are struggling to salvage Boeing's reputation and public confidence in the 737 programme, the company's main source of profit.

In addition to facing shareholders, the chief executive will also hold his first press conference since the crash.

Outside, a group representing relatives and friends of victims is planning a silent protest about "defects and secrecy related to the 737 Max".

Muilenburg last week outlined Boeing's plan to contain the financial fallout from a global grounding of the 737 to investors. Looming next is an even tougher task: convincing regulators around the world that the single-aisle jet is safe to fly.

Boeing has redesigned and extensively tested software that was linked to the Ethiopia disaster and an October accident in Indonesia. The system misfired and repeatedly pressed the nose of the Max down until flight crews lost control of both aircraft. The crashes killed 346 people.

While Boeing has stressed a redesign that will prevent the system from erroneously activating, the company hasn't yet provided a full accounting of how its flight-control engineers came to design the feature.

"In the absence of them confessing the flaw here, then any narrative is valid in the minds of people," said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia.

The accidents have also damaged the standing of US regulators. The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the software, known as MCAS, which relied on a reading from a single sensor. The redesigned version will compare data from two vanes.

While the FAA will conduct the initial review and certification of the system, other regulators are determined to do their own analysis.

"This is no longer an aeronautical and technical issue, it is a geopolitical and policy issue," said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and aerospace engineer. (©Bloomberg)

Irish Independent

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