They’re calling it a resignation for some reason, but Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was fired over the weekend. His departure, effective immediately, is the latest fallout in what has proven to be a very challenging year for the company. Chairman David L. Calhoun will transition to the CEO role in mid-January and Director Larry Kellner will take over as Chairman of the Board.
The 737 MAX crashes and the associated leaks, discoveries and investigative surprises are the most visible challenges Boeing faced in the past year. But there was plenty more to test Muilenburg’s management skills. The 777X faced a development setback when it failed a pressure test and another when its sole engine supplier needed time to fix performance issues.The company’s KC-46 tanker program finally made its first (rather delayed) delivery to the US Air Force in 2019 but continued to work a list of bugs and problems that prevented the planes from performing their full range of services. One of the major problems was finally solved just last week on a single aircraft, with the rest of the retrofits to come. But that program has hardly been a shining star. Also over the weekend the company’s Starliner reusable space capsule suffered a timing glitch in its first test flight. While the mission was not a complete failure – it safely reached orbit and then returned to the designated landing zone – Starliner failed to mate with the International Space Station as intended.
But the MAX killed people, casting the company’s future into doubt far more than the others. And Muilenburg wasn’t CEO when those fatal design decisions were made, though he was in the C-Suite.
One might argue that, since the beginning of the MAX crisis, Muilenburg’s priorities were misplaced. That he called the President after the Ethiopian crash rather than the FAA, pushing the idea that the aircraft didn’t need to be grounded, is telling. Ditto that it took the company (and the FAA) so long to acquire and process the data to correlate the two crashes. The games played about which documents to produce for which agencies is another – probably legal but also likely ethically challenged – decision that ultimately rests on his shoulders.
And then there was his performance testifying in front of Congress. It took a few rounds of hearings before anyone from Boeing showed up, and when Muilenburg finally did his performance was painful. He said things that were probably bad for the company or bad for himself personally. As the CEO he likely should have a very clear picture of the company’s strategy regarding lawsuits related to the crash, for example. But he explained under oath that he did not.
Eventually he succumbed to the political pressure, agreeing to forego his (sizable) bonus for the year as a fiduciary penance, but even that idea seemed like a surprise to him. Many Congresscritters suggested during the hearings that he resign but he declined at that time, riding out the next 8 weeks in hopes of some sort of miracle.
Following two days of getting smacked around in front of Congress and hearing the FAA state repeatedly that it would be the only arbiter of a timeline for MAX recertification Muilenburg kept on the offensive, trying to keep alive the idea that it could happen before the end of the year. Only after a reported personal, private appeal from the Administrator did that noise finally (and recently) end.
And then there was the NY Times report from Sunday about how he’s failed to control the company and the message. Ultimately Boeing chose a week ago to shut down the 737 MAX production line.
For someone with the storied engineering background that Muilenburg holds – and it is an impressive CV spanning decades of work across military, commercial and space – perhaps the most surprising part is that he did not see this coming. That he did not move to get out in front of it better, or to get out of the way sooner. Was it a case of excessive (and unjustified) confidence that he could see a fix through? Was it a hope that connections and the brute strength of the company could overpower a growing backlash on a global scale?
Maybe that strategy was his decision, to keep pushing and pushing until the industry accepted that the MAX was probably safe enough. If so, that was an affront to the culture that has made commercial aviation such a safe option globally. Maybe it was the Board’s decision and he was just the pawn implementing it, and now the pawn sacrificed because it failed. Will Calhoun and Kellner dramatically shift course? That they sat on the Board throughout this mess – Calhoun since 2009 and Kellner since 2011 – does not raise hopes particularly high.
Things should get better eventually. The MAX should be certifiable, though maybe not without additional pilot training requirements or other retrofit work involved. Boeing will clearly lose many billions of dollars on this program, but it seems likely that the planes can still return to the skies. But they’re going to need a very different sort of plan to make that happen and to make the world comfortable with operating them and flying in them.
Because brute force failed miserably.