Boeing chief on the Max: ‘I believe in this airplane’
Boeing’s chief executive insisted on Wednesday that, despite delays and a damaged reputation, the 737 Max will fly again.
“I believe in this airplane,” David Calhoun said.
Mr Calhoun’s comments, during his first call with journalists since taking the helm nine days ago, came the day after Boeing said it did not expect the Max would be certified safe to fly until the middle of the year, months later than the previous estimate.
But Boeing plans to restart production of the Max before mid-year, and the supply chain “will be reinvigorated before that”, Mr Calhoun said. “We got to get that line started up again,” he said.
Boeing paused Max production at its factory in Renton, Washington, this month to avoid adding to the growing inventory of grounded planes that cannot be delivered to customers.
It has been working on software changes and a pilot training plan to persuade the US Federal Aviation Administration to lift the grounding, which took effect 10 months ago following two fatal crashes of the jet.
The company stretched out its timeline for the FAA’s certification process after it decided to recommend that pilots receive training in flight simulators.
Boeing’s board announced in December that Mr Calhoun would become chief executive this month. It forced out former boss Dennis Muilenburg because of how he handled the fallout from the two Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a combined 346 people.
Mr Calhoun is a former executive at the private equity group Blackstone and at General Electric’s aviation business, and has served on Boeing’s board since 2009.
On Wednesday, he told reporters that the board had never considered cutting or suspending Boeing’s dividend, despite criticism that the company has prioritised shareholder returns over engineering and safety.
The company had the financial capacity to do what it must do to recover from the Max crisis, and “we will lean into our balance sheet to do them”, he said.
Boeing also will make “investments” to support engineering, he said, without specifying what those would be.
The Max has affected Boeing’s plans to address a gap in its product line: a plane for the lucrative middle market currently being served by Airbus’ A321XLR. The New Midsize Aeroplane — NMA, as it is called — will be developed from “a clean sheet of paper”, Mr Calhoun said.
While Mr Calhoun said he expects the Max to “hold its own” when it returns to the market, the Max’s fate will influence the course of the new plane’s development.
Mr Calhoun also addressed messages released publicly this month in which Boeing employees referred to the Max as “designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys”, and described efforts to discourage Indonesian carrier Lion Air from seeking additional training for pilots.
Mr Calhoun said the messages only represented a fraction of Boeing’s workforce. “My job is to make sure that never happens again”, he said. “There was a microculture that I will never defend to anybody as long as I live, but I do believe it’s a microculture. Otherwise I would have a much tougher job.”
Although some have questioned whether a longtime board member is the best person to lead Boeing out of the crisis — including some surviving family members of victims killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash — Mr Calhoun said he had never during his board tenure see the need to compromise “safety for something else.”
“Whether you think I’m the right guy for the job, I’ve probably got more conviction around these (safety issues) than anyone else”, he said.