Dave Calhoun bows out as chief executive of Boeing

The blowout of a fuselage panel from a Boeing 737 MAX over Oregon in January was a “watershed moment” for the aircraft’s maker, according to Dave Calhoun, its chief executive. It was also one for Mr Calhoun, who on March 25th announced he would step down as boss at the end of 2024. His departure is part of sweeping management changes that Boeing hopes will finally put an end to years of turbulence at America’s once high-flying aerospace giant.

Mr Calhoun was brought in after two deadly crashes involving the 737 MAX, in late 2018 and early 2019. Both disasters were linked to problems with flight-control software and led to the grounding of the entire 737 MAX fleet for 20 months while the software was fixed. Critics alleged that the company was paying too much attention to returning money to shareholders and not enough to engineering.

Chart: The Economist

Mr Calhoun’s main task was to rebuild Boeing’s reputation for technical excellence, which was severely damaged by the disasters. Instead, a string of incidents on his watch continued to dent the company’s image—thankfully with less tragic consequences. Deliveries of Boeing’s long-haul 787 Dreamliner have been suspended several times in the past few years because of quality-control problems. In April 2023 the company said it would have to fix the vertical stabilisers on 737s in production at Spirit, one of Boeing’s suppliers, and in storage. In August the planemaker admitted that it would need to correct improperly drilled holes in part of the pressurised cabin of 165 737 MAXes assembled by Spirit.

Job not done, in other words. And Mr Calhoun’s as-yet-unannounced successor will take the yoke in the middle of a rocky flight. Boeing has not turned an annual profit since 2018. It lags behind its European arch-rival, Airbus, in orders for short-haul jets by 4,800 to 7,300. It is struggling to rehire skilled workers laid off during the covid-19 lull as it tries to increase production of the 737 max from 38 a month to 50 by 2025-26, in order to meet strong demand from airlines dealing with a surge in post-pandemic “revenge” flying.

Some of Boeing’s woes on Mr Calhoun’s watch were beyond his control. Soon after he took over at the start of 2020, covid sent the industry into a tailspin. Airbus’s and Boeing’s stockmarket returns plummeted. But whereas Boeing’s were almost twice as high as those of Airbus in 2018, they are currently half the European firm’s (see chart). If the American planemaker is to soar again, its next captain will need not just to respond to problems but also to prevent new ones from emerging.