When you build complex, cutting-edge products that transform global commerce and culture, you expect to occasionally encounter setbacks. So the Boeing Company has a formula for dealing with problems like the controversy surrounding batteries on its latest jetliner. Basically, you cooperate with regulatory authorities, dedicate as much talent as necessary to figuring out what went wrong, and avoid making public statements that go beyond what you actually know. The company’s reticence in commenting about the battery issue is reinforced by a federal rule that prohibits parties to investigations from discussing the inquiries.
However, others are not so constrained in commenting, so there’s a lot of speculation in public forums about precisely why lithium-ion batteries on two 787 Dreamliners suffered heat-related damage. If you have more imagination than scruples, you can generate a lot of page-views with a story like this, especially when the principals involved aren’t saying much. There’s a reason why Hollywood thought “Snakes on a Plane” was a better premise for a scary movie than “Snakes on a Boat.” But few people will remember the movie five years from now, and fewer still will recall what the Dreamliner flap was about.
How do I know this? By looking at Boeing’s history. In the 97 years since it was founded by Bill Boeing outside Seattle, a dozen major competitors have come and gone in the commercial-transport market — Convair, Douglas, Martin — and only Boeing survived. Its main rival today is a company that the World Trade Organization says never would have existed at all without massive illegal subsidies from four European governments. Boeing doesn’t get government subsidies, and yet it sold more jetliners than Airbus did last year because its planes are better designed, more reliable, and a superior match for market needs.
If you’ve never seen the Boeing commercial-transport complex around Seattle, then it’s hard to convey what a monument to free enterprise it is. Its final assembly facility for wide-body jetliners is the largest enclosed space in the world, a building so big that it has been known to spawn its own micro-climate, complete with raindrops inside the plant. And if you’ve never talked to the people who design and build and market Boeing planes, then you probably can’t grasp how much better they are than the employees who populate other companies in the same line of work. But they are, so much so that Boeing’s workforce is as much a testament to the greatness of American civilization as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Manhattan skyline.
Boeing has set the standard for air transport since its infancy. The first pressurized-cabin airliner. The first successful jetliner. The first jumbojet. And now the Dreamliner, which offers breakthrough gains in fuel economy, maintainability and passenger comfort. Boeing’s long history of successfully pursuing such projects in a disciplined and imaginative way explains why it has become America’s biggest exporter — a company that pays workers the highest wages in the business, and has never proposed moving its plants overseas. That same history explains why the Dreamliner controversy will not last long, and America’s greatest aerospace enterprise has a bright future.