Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is becoming a PR nightmare. Touted as a new super-efficient passenger plane when it debuted in December 2011, the Dreamliner has been plagued with problems ever since, ranging from oil and fuel leaks, a cracked cockpit window, and various electrical and mechanical malfunctions.
The plane’s most significant setback occurred this week when a burning smell in the cabin set off alarms and forced pilots to make an emergency landing in Japan, prompting two leading Japanese airlines to temporarily suspend all Dreamliner flights. On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration followed suit and said all of the planes should be grounded until a question about a fire risk related to a lithium battery is resolved. The move follows the FAA’s decision to conduct a thorough review of the Dreamliner’s design and manufacturing - an unusual move just a year after the model’s launch.
Prior to this latest incident, Boeing’s top brass said they were “fully confident” in the Dreamliner, while industry experts talked about “teething problems” inherent in any new and sophisticated jet airliner. Teething problems on an iPhone mean a dropped call; on an airplane, those problems are rather more serious. The Dreamliner’s glitches and negative media coverage have the potential to ensnare Boeing’s partners. Boeing’s Japanese customers are now getting to figure that out first hand.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Boeing. If your product is failing, you want to be the one to take it off the shelf – not your customer.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Leave PR room to calibrate. Boeing was right to initially express confidence in the Dreamliner; the plane did, after all, undergo intense testing and represents an enormous investment that shouldn’t be walked away from. However, there is a point where minor becomes major, and this may be it for Boeing. When your customers and regulators appear more concerned than you do – especially about something that potentially involves people’s lives – it’s time to revise your approach.