Boeing’s 787 PR Problem: When Do Glitches Turn Into a Crisis?

Image: Boeing

So far, the Dreamliner isn’t so dreamy.

With news that Japan's two biggest airlines—ANA and Japan Airlines—grounded all their Boeing 787 aircraft for safety checks on Wednesday after one was forced to make an emergency landing the day before, the U.S.-based Boeing is on the fringe of a major PR crisis.

In early January, at Boston's Logan International Airport a battery pack caught fire in a Japan Airlines 787 empty of passengers. Two days later, a computer problem forced ANA to cancel a 787’s flight to Tokyo. Then came more reports of separate problems with the aircraft, including a fuel leak and a cracked cockpit windshield.

The 787’s growing pains beg an important communications question: At what point do operational or technical problems with a new product become a bona fide PR crisis?

Aircraft are in an entirely different stratosphere than say, Apple’s iPhone 4, which was plagued by an antenna problem after it launched in June 2010. However, a badly engineered smartphone isn’t going to fall out of the sky. And new aircraft are prone to have glitches that need to be worked out, much to the PR detriment of the airlines that fly them first. “There are always teething problems with new aircraft and airlines often are reluctant to be the launch customer of any new airplanes," said Brendan Sobie, Singapore-based chief analyst at CAPA-Center for Aviation.

So while the Japanese airlines that added the Dreamliner to their fleets bear the brunt of angry customers and loss of reputation because of delays and cancelations, Boeing is taking a measured PR approach: Of the news of the grounding in Japan, Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said, "Boeing is aware of the diversion of a 787 operated by ANA to Takamatsu in western Japan. We will be working with our customer and the appropriate regulatory agencies."

But if more incidents occur,  Boeing may be forced to ground the entire fleet, while using stronger messaging to let the public know that it is working hard on the problems. The airline manufacturer needs to ensure that the Dreamliner will indeed be a safe—and dreamy—experience.

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