Boeing Balances Safety and Profits Amid 737 Max Crisis

Less than four weeks after a hole blew open on a Boeing 737 Max 9 jet during a flight, company executives face a thorny question: Should they emphasize safety or financial performance?

The issue is looming as Boeing prepares to report its fourth-quarter earnings on Wednesday amid its most significant safety crisis in years. With the Jan. 5 incident on a Max 9 flight still under investigation, executives are grappling with how much to discuss quality control while also reassuring shareholders that the company is protecting their investment, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected in the coming days to release a preliminary report on the incident, which occurred on an Alaska Airlines flight. The report could shed more light on how a panel blew off the Max 9 and will almost certainly ramp up scrutiny of Boeing by lawmakers, airlines and safety groups.

Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive, is expected to speak about safety during the company’s call with investors on Wednesday morning after the release of its earnings report, one of the people said. But it is not clear what balance he and other executives will strike in their comments as they try to contain the fallout from the Max 9 incident.

The subject has taken on new significance after news accounts, including a report in The New York Times, that Boeing workers opened and then reinstalled the panel, known as a door plug. The plug tore away from the Alaska plane shortly after takeoff from Portland, Ore. That revelation suggests that the incident — which terrified passengers and forced the pilots to make an emergency landing — may have been caused by lapses at a Boeing factory in Renton, Wash.

Some aviation experts and executives have long said Boeing’s safety problems and its financial performance are intertwined. The company, these people say, has for many years put too much emphasis on increasing profits and enriching shareholders with dividends and share buybacks, and not enough on investing in engineering and safety.

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