Embattled Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg resigned today, effective immediately. Boeing announced in a statement that “Dennis A. Muilenburg has resigned from his positions as Chief Executive Officer and Board director effective immediately. Boeing Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith will serve as interim CEO during the brief transition period, while Mr. Calhoun exits his non-Boeing commitments.”
In the short statement, Boeing alluded to the 737MAX crisis but did not directly cite the cause stating, “The Board of Directors decided that a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the Company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.”
Tumultuous Road for Muilenburg
The now former Boeing CEO became leader of the aerospace company in July of 2015. Back then, Boeing was on the precipice of launching three major programs that would set the direction of the company for years to come. The Boeing 737 MAX was intended to compete with the Airbus A320NEO series. Boeing was also close to launching the 777X which would both serve as the nail in the coffin for the A380 super jumbo and cement Boeing’s lead in the large aircraft space well into the 21st century. At the time, Boeing was also approaching the reveal of the Starliner, their entrant to commercially fly astronauts to the International Space Station.
Three Major Failures: 737MAX, 777X, Starliner and a host of non-minor setbacks
Three and a half years later and all three of Boeing’s largest projects are delayed at best, with significant setbacks for all three platforms that put Boeing at real material risk of losing its lead in the industry on the commercial and space fronts. The 737MAX is grounded. The 777X’s first flight is delayed until next year. And the Starliner’s first test launch ended with a computer malfunction that resulted in an unsuccessful orbit insertion that missed the ISS.
There weren’t many successes during Muilenburg’s tenure. The Boeing 737MAX debacle stands as the longest grounding of an airliner ever. What was previously a cash cow for the manufacturer is now more of an anchor. Airlines like United, American, and Southwest keep pushing back the relaunch date. At one time the hope was that the jet would be recertified by December. Now it looks to be sometime next year. But with the constant delays and the fact that they have not announced what needs to be done to recertify the jet makes it more than just a nil possibility that the jet might not fly again.
Additionally, the 777X program was supposed to be a clear win as it added new engines and a 787-style wing to an already successful jet. What followed was a series of delays involving engine issues for the new flagship jetliner and a very public leak showing the jet failing its max pressurization testing just short of its target goal.
The Boeing Starliner miscue might have been the last straw for Boeing’s board. The space craft should have been a clear and relatively simple win for the company. It utilized a scaled-up capsule design to simplify spaceflight to the International Space Station. Its first test flight was significantly delayed. During its launch this past week, the craft lifted off safely but an anomaly led to an error in orbit insertion. The craft never rendezvoused with the ISS in orbit. Instead, it touched down safely days later without reaching its planned destination. Another failure for Boeing.
Welcome home, #Starliner. Thanks to the Boeing and @NASA team for the safe re-entry and landing. The data we are gathering from this orbital flight test will help prepare for future missions and the launch of @Commercial_Crew astronauts. pic.twitter.com/MWhkVTF1XE— Dennis A. Muilenburg (@BoeingCEO) December 22, 2019
So what’s next for Boeing?
It’s not a complete surprise that Boeing canned their CEO today (resignation is the official term.) But we have to wonder if it was just poor performance or something more. The 737MAX, 777x, Starliner are the primary issues, of course. But then Boeing is also facing challenges on other fronts. The KC-46 has had significant issues. Boeing’s long-rumored NMA still hasn’t launched and it seems other airlines are defaulting to an upgraded A321NEO instead. Boeing’s fighter program is mostly a few F-15Xs, Growlers and the upcoming T-7.
Are the problems at Boeing more deeply than the public knows? Hopefully not, but we aren’t holding our breath either. Will Boeing return to its true culture of innovation versus its more McD approach of modifying existing airframes? The past decade of Boeing reminds us more of McDonnellDouglas than the original Boeing that existed before the merger.
Any fan of aviation should hope to see Boeing’s ship righted under new leadership soon and the return of an engineering first culture that values safety, ingenuity, and transparency.