Under Pressure, Boeing CEO Seeks to Bolster Confidence After 737 MAX Crashes

April 29, 2019 Updated: April 29, 2019

CHICAGO—Boeing Co Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg sought to bolster shareholder confidence in the company on April 29 in his first general meeting since two fatal crashes of the 737 MAX triggered the jet’s grounding, lawsuits, and investigations.

Battling the biggest crisis of his tenure, Muilenburg said the company was making steady progress toward getting approval for new software as questions linger over the safety of its fastest-selling airplane.

Family and friends of 24-year-old American Samya Stumo, one of the 157 killed in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX on March 10, held a silent protest outside the meeting site in a cold and rainy Chicago.

That plane plunged to the ground shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, five months after a similar Lion Air nosedive in Indonesia that killed all 189 passengers and crew.

Muilenburg is Boeing’s chairman and president in addition to CEO, and faced calls to strip him of one of those titles at the April 29 meeting, but a motion to split the chairman and CEO roles did not pass.

Daniel Johnson, an engineer and a Boeing shareholder on and off since 1984, said Boeing “really stubbed their toe” by allowing the MCAS anti-stall system to rely on only one sensor.

“The question is: Will they need to rebrand? We don’t know how much the general public actually knows what a 737 MAX is,” Johnson said outside the meeting.

About 150 shareholders gathered in the auditorium of the Chicago Field Museum for the meeting.

One shareholder during the meeting asked Muilenburg what Boeing was doing on safety assessments following the crashes. The CEO said the company’s commitment to safety has not wavered.

“Safety is at the core of what we do. Every day, we try to get better,” Muilenburg said.

Muilenburg was due to hold his first news conference since the grounding after the meeting in Chicago on April 29, exactly six months after the Lion Air crash.

Boeing is under pressure to deliver a software fix to prevent erroneous data triggering the MCAS anti-stall system and a new pilot training package that will convince global regulators, and the flying public, that the aircraft is safe.

Boeing has acknowledged that the accidental firing of the software based on bad sensor data was a common link in the chain of events leading to the two accidents.

“We know we can break this link in the chain. It’s our responsibility to eliminate this risk,” Muilenburg told shareholders.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration could clear Boeing’s 737 MAX jet to fly in late May or the first part of June, two people familiar with the matter said on April 26, though Boeing has yet to submit the updated software and training for review.

Some pilots have warned that draft training proposals do not go far enough to address their concerns.

Meanwhile, deliveries of the 737 MAX, which airlines around the world had been relying on to service a growing air travel industry for years to come, are on hold.

Last week Boeing abandoned its 2019 financial outlook, halted share buybacks and said lowered production due to the 737 MAX grounding had cost it at least $1 billion so far.

Shareholders have filed a lawsuit accusing the company of defrauding them by concealing safety deficiencies in the plane. The model is also the target of investigations by U.S. transportation authorities and the Department of Justice.

Boeing must also contend with lawsuits filed on behalf of dozens of victims of the two crashes, including the family of Stumo, who are asking whether the Ethiopian disaster could have been prevented after what happened to Lion Air.

Shares in the company, worth $214 billion, have lost nearly 10 percent of their value since the March 10 crash.

By Tracy Rucinski