Boeing’s Reputation Crisis: from cabin blowout to brand fallout

Boeing’s Reputation Crisis: from cabin blowout to brand fallout

26th March 2024


In a networked media environment, brand reputation crises unfold in complex, unpredictable ways, spiralling out of control fast, and often taking other brands –and company leadership– with them.

Once a paragon of American industrial and engineering quality, Boeing is currently undergoing the most turbulent stretch in its 100+ year history, which reached a climax yesterday with the announcement that its leadership was resigning.

This crisis dragged on for months, stoked by continued malfunctions and accidents, news of a suspected murder, customers looking for ways to avoid flying in Boeing planes – and some more unexpected notes, such as a great PR win for Apple, accusation of wokeness, as well as endless irony and humor.


It started with the cabin blowout of an Alaska Airlines flight, which saw a rapid recalibration of that's brand's reputation at 16,000 feet. No sooner had the flight in question landed, then viral posts and news stories kickstarted a media storm that’s initially rebounded on Alaska Airlines alone. 

This was typified by an SNL sketch, written over the following days, that lambasted the airline. It was evidence of how fast the story was moving, however, when it was performed and uploaded onto YouTube, commenters were already shifting blame onto Boeing, the plane manufacturer.

And this provided an early indication into how narratives around the incident - and ultimately Boeing itself - could move from brand to brand, implicating them in the story as it unfolded.

So what did this dynamic look like? 

The dramatic nature of the Alaska Airlines incident, and a the always-on social and media landscape primed to amplify it, ensured that this incident brought the company’s perceived failings (long discussed by industry watchers and insiders) to a much wider audience.

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Delta was another airline brought into the fray, as a plane nose cone falling off a grounded plane drew media and audience attention away from its CEO’s attempt to offer a calming statement

It wasn’t all bad news for brands, though. 

Apple received an unexpected reputation divided when an Apple iPhone sucked out the plane was found on the ground - fully operational. 

Airbus, meanwhile, ostensibly benefited from the comparison with their great rivals. 

But the brand professed itself unhappy with the attention the latest incidents attracted, positioning them as unhelpful for the industry at large.

And this would seem to make sense, as travelers book their holidays through airlines rather than manufacturers. As such, there’s little immediate competitive advantage behind Boeing’s planes being implicated in a number of different incidents. Instead, the lack of confidence in planes may actually hurt Airbus as it looks to service a continued high volume of travelers. 

When we turn our attention to online news, it becomes clear that Airbus are likely going to navigate these complex brand dynamics for some time. This is because unlike other brands, particularly Apple and Delta, which attracted media attention for single incidents, Airbus has been mentioned alongside Boeing for a sustained period.

Online news serves to highlight key pieces of information that garner global attention. For instance, The New York Times investigation into the production of the main aircraft in question was picked up by business news TV segments as far as France and Singapore.

Explosive content on X frequently adopts a political tone, quickly catching the attention of broadcast news outlets. And nowhere is this more evident than in the quotes from X’s CEO Elon Musk, who cast Boeing’s travails as the product of a ‘woke’ corporate mentality that prioritized D&I over engineering.

The remarks ensured a spike in social and media conversation. They also served to displace some of the attention forming around another narrative (predominately made on #Fintwit - financial Twitter/X), which viewed Boeing and Tesla not as rivals, but as suffering the same travails.


Even if not a deliberate ‘dead cat’ strategy, the shift in emphasis helped redirect media - and audience - interest. 

One issue faced by Boeing is the fact that its products are so very visible - and the subject of intense scrutiny. Passengers now share experiences widely, exemplified by the United Airlines flight where a Boeing wing malfunctioned. Social media platforms like Reddit, instagram, Tiktok and Facebook became instant channels for sharing. 

At the same time, enough industry experts have sounded warnings about impending issues for reputable publications, such as Business Insider, to feature a roster of key story figures, like Ex-Boeing senior manager Ed Pierson, who warned Alaska Airlines before the January incident

Posts and articles feed a hunger for information on the part of consumers, which incorporates curiosity and schadenfreude as much as it does a need to be reassured by potential flyers.This is evident in the high volume of searches in Google searches made around the brand 

Queries seek assurance about Boeing's reliability, especially regarding the safety of models like the Boeing 737. Questions also reflect broader anxieties about aviation safety and resilience, such as flying with one engine. The prevalence of these inquiries underscores the urgency for Boeing to address public concerns transparently and implement robust safety measures and crisis management strategies to rebuild trust. Moreover, the surge in Google search volume is another signal of the topic's movement into mainstream culture.

At the same time, there has also been a ‘backlash to the backlash’, with a growing number of individuals likely to call out the continued crisis as sensationalism.

At present, these do not appear to have made much impact beyond specific communities, and the statistics underpinning these arguments and counter-arguments are the subject of much debate, but there is potential for this movement to grow.

Beyond this, we also see a number of other conversational themes and threads emerging. The most significant of which was the death of whistleblower John Barnett, who was found to have died from a “self-inflicted’ wound, to quote the local coroner. This led to a peak of 55k mentions of Boeing alongside the word ‘whistleblower’ on a single day.

There is broad consensus amongst both online audiences, and a number of long-form videos proliferating on platforms such as YouTube, that the incident was not as described. Users either state this directly, or use cultural references from media like Michael Clayton (which focuses on the cover-up of corporate malfeasance).

Elsewhere, there was also a significant spike in mentions of ‘war’ alongside Boeing. This came about as largely left-of-center commentators cast attention on Boeing’s long history as a defense contractor, and its reported involvement in the Israel-Gaza crisis. Much of this conversation castigated Boeing, but the mainstream media also came in for stringent criticism due its focus on the company’s commercial travails, rather than any military involvement.

Finally, there was a smaller thread of conversation which focused on the travel search engine Kayak. The platform allows travelers the comparatively rare option of filtering out particular types of aircraft. In the wake of the Alaska Airlines incident, and the subsequent concern amongst consumers, the company report a 15 times increase in users filtering out the Boeing 737

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