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Boeing CEO discusses long recovery for airline industry

Boeing CEO David Calhoun acknowledges the dire circumstances facing his company and the airline industry, but points to hope in the future.

Boeing's new CEO David Calhoun has been on the job less than four months. He took over at a time the company was facing the global grounding of the 737 MAX fleet -- more than 800 planes. 

When Calhoun started as CEO, and after a decade on Boeing’s board of directors, the extreme impacts of the COVID-19 crisis were still unknown.

“The word apocalyptic actually does describe the moment,” Calhoun told TODAY Show anchor Savannah Guthrie. 

But Calhoun doesn’t use the word “apocalyptic” to describe the airline industry's recovery. 

“As people begin to re-live their lives, we expect they will also get back to traveling,” Calhoun said. “And as long as we can demonstrate the safety of our industry and the safety of our airplane experience, we think we can return to a growth rate similar to the past. But it may take us three, five years to get there.”

His comments were largely consistent with what he had described to Boeing stockholders in a virtual shareholders’ meeting on April 27, and on the company’s most recent earnings call two days later. 

He acknowledges Boeing will become a smaller company, where jobs will be trimmed by 10% overall, and even deeper in its commercial airplane division.

WATCH | TODAY Show: Boeing CEO says it could take 3 to 5 years for airline industry to return from ‘apocalyptic’ state 

Speaking exclusively with TODAY's Savannah Guthrie, David Calhoun, CEO of Boeing, agrees that "apocalyptic" accurately describes the current state of the airline industry, but predicts "we believe we will return to a growth rate similar to the past, but it might take us three, five years to get there."

One question posed to Calhoun: How hard will airlines be hit when federal money runs out in late September?  

“Will there be a major US carrier that just goes out of business?” Guthrie asked. 

“I don’t want to get too predictive on that subject,” Calhoun said. “But yes, something will happen when September comes around. Traffic levels won’t be back to 100%, they won’t even be back to 25. Maybe by the end of the year we approach 50. But there will definitely need to be adjustments made on the part of the airlines.” 

Calhoun talked up the capability of air filtration and air management systems inside the company’s own planes. 

“It’s not public knowledge, but believe it or not, that cabin replaces its air every two to three minutes. The design of that system inside the cabin was designed to prevent transmission of exactly this airborne carrier.” 

Calhoun said it may take three years just to get back to where the industry was when coronavirus took hold, and five years before airlines and Boeing begin to see real growth.  

“I’m hopeful somewhere between here and there is a vaccine, and the moment of high anxiety begins to subside. But I still believe in the future of the industry."

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