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Boeing’s CEO search has a new frontrunner—and insiders say it could mean a radical change for the $104 billion ailing planemaker

Boeing’s search for a new CEO ranks as the most closely watched succession drama in decades. If the manufacturing icon makes the wrong choice, its airline customers won’t get the planes they desperately need in the years ahead, raising prices and cutting frequency of travel for the 2.2 billion people who fly each year. It’s now clear that the directors’, regulators’, and Wall Street’s view of what the legendary planemaker needs in a new leader has totally changed since the notorious blowout over Portland, Ore., on Jan. 5 exposed manifold flaws in its manufacturing processes and procedures. Last year, the odds strongly favored a veteran insider, and like all its CEOs from the past two decades, not anyone bringing deep experience on the factory floor. Now, the likely choice is a newcomer offering detailed knowledge of how planes get built, a radical change agent determined to restore high-quality production, on-schedule deliveries, and great aerospace expertise, as opposed to financial engineering, job one.

The Alaska Airlines cataclysm upends Boeing’s old succession plan

On March 25, Boeing unveiled a sudden upheaval in its C-suite and boardroom. Its press release that day announced that David Calhoun will step down as CEO at year-end, and that chairman Larry Kellner, former head of Continental Airlines, will depart following the annual meeting on May 16, to be replaced by director Steve Mollenkopf, retired chief of Qualcomm. Stan Deal, the top executive at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, is leaving the company, and Stephanie Pope, the COO, is taking Deal’s old job. It’s Mollenkopf who will lead the search for the next CEO.

Fortune interviewed sources that include past Boeing executives and current and former high-ranking figures in the aerospace industry to get their take on the qualifications needed in a new leader, and the candidates the board is most likely favoring right now. All of them chose to speak on background. On the sudden resignations and shake-up at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, they generally agreed that the board was responding to pressure from both airline customers and the FAA. Four days before the big reshuffling, airline CEOs made the extraordinary request to meet with Kellner sans Calhoun. “When your customers say they want to meet with your chairman, you know they want change at the top,” says one person to whom I spoke, and who added: “The board realized that the FAA can make things harder if today’s leadership stays in place.” Said a second source: “When all these guys at the top are immediately replaced or retire at the first opportunity, it would appear that the FAA had a hand in that.”

Just three weeks before the catastrophe aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, Boeing announced that Pope would ascend to chief operating officer on Jan. 1, making her heir apparent to Calhoun. Pope spent most of her three decades at Boeing in financial jobs, serving as CFO of both Global Services and Commercial Airplanes, and most recently headed Global Services, the unit that supports commercial and industry customers. Pope has proved an expert financial manager in an enterprise that—until the flood of safety issues—focused heavily on shareholder returns. She also apparently did a good job as a general manager. But according to my sources, financial acumen isn’t what’s needed going forward. “I was surprised that after all that happened, Boeing would put a former CFO in the top Commercial Airplanes job,” says one source. Though that move keeps Pope in the running, the people to whom I spoke believe that the board is now leaning heavily toward an outsider with the manufacturing chops to get things right at its giant plants in Renton and Everett, near Seattle, and in North Charleston, S.C.

A probable solution: A great manager who also understands manufacturing, paired with a production hawk who’s all over the factory floor

The big problem the board faces: Running Boeing requires a combination of skills that’s highly unusual, and tough to find in a single leader. “The CEO job at Boeing is so complicated,” explains one industry veteran. “You have all the public-facing and regulatory work to do, all the airline customers around the world, the constituency in Washington. To fill those roles, you need someone with stature and sophistication. And that isn’t always the same person who knows how to build airplanes.” The one obvious candidate blending the two talents is GE Aerospace CEO Larry Culp, who greatly streamlined GE’s manufacturing engine, frequently touring the assembly lines in person and swapping ideas for moving parts faster and safer with welders and machinists. Culp also showed strong diplomatic skills in dealing with Congress and regulators. But Culp has declared he has no interest in leaving the engine-manufacturing business he’s done so much to make highly efficient and profitable.

The best solution for Boeing, say several sources, would probably be a split: naming a CEO who’s a great general manager, and a second-in-command who’s a hard-core, hands-on-the-levers production specialist. At the same time, the generalist CEO needs to be someone who’s headed manufacturing businesses and can delve into the details to tell if the engine’s sound or broken. He or she can’t be someone who believes all the smart thinking only happens in the C-suite, but embraces a mindset where management listens to the folks tightening the screws and fastening the panels. That overall approach would enable the second-in-command to work hand in glove with newly empowered workers and on-site managers so that each step in building these wonderful flying machines only moves forward when all parts and systems from the previous station are complete. That would end the costly, quality-destroying “traveled work” regime that forces workers to rush stations ahead, and install components out of sequence.

Right now, an excellent candidate looks like Dave Gitlin

As of today, the best prospect is probably Carrier Global CEO Dave Gitlin, who’s a Boeing director. The reason: Gitlin’s demonstrated excellence as an overall leader, and his long, broad career in aerospace, including plenty of experience observing what makes for an assembly line that’s an exemplar in quality control. At 54, he’s also the right age. Boeing needs a chief who has a runway of at least seven or eight years; it took decades to undermine its culture, and will require several years to institute a fresh obsession with quality and safety. Plus, it’s best if a single CEO can guide Boeing through the entire process of designing and building a “clean-sheet” successor to the 737 Max.

Gitlin earned a BA from Cornell, a JD from the University of Connecticut School of Law, and an MBA from MIT. He started his career as an attorney at Sundstrand, a manufacturer of electric power systems for the aerospace industry. After Hamilton, a unit of UTC (then United Technologies Corp.) that made airline carburetors, deicing systems, and engine mounts, bought Sundstrand to create its Hamilton Sundstrand unit in 1999, Gitlin moved into operations. At Hamilton Sundstrand, he cycled through six positions, which included overseeing its business with a top customer, engine maker Pratt & Whitney, also part of UTC, and serving as president of auxiliary power, engine, and control systems. In 2011, UTC bought Goodyear, a Charlotte-based maker of landing gear and jet-engine casings, to create UTC Aerospace Systems. Gitlin led the successful integration, and in 2013 ascended to president and COO of UTC Aerospace Systems.

In 2018, UTC purchased Rockwell Collins, producer of avionics and flight control systems. The $30 billion deal was one of the largest aerospace acquisitions in history. Gitlin rose to COO and president of the entire UTC aerospace unit, newly named Collins Aerospace. But UTC planned to spin off non-aerospace businesses, including its Otis elevator and Carrier heating, ventilation, and AC franchises. UTC named Gitlin as CEO of the soon-to-be independent Carrier Global. According to a former UTC manager I interviewed, the honor was well deserved: “He was so well respected at UTC for being an operating guy. He knew how to make the trains run on time; he was willing to get his fingernails dirty. UTC named him to run Carrier to show that it was putting an expert, smart leader of a manufacturing company in charge.”

At Carrier, Gitlin has assembled one of the best records of any manufacturing CEO in recent years. Since 2020, and despite the hammering from the pandemic, he’s lifted margins from 12.8% to 14.1%, and grown its highly lucrative aftermarkets business in the past two years by 22% to $5.5 billion. He’s also shed the security unit for $5 billion to focus where profitability is highest, in the core heating and refrigeration businesses. Since the spinoff in June 2019, Gitlin has delivered a cumulative 245% total return, or 37% annualized, a record that beats the S&P by 15 points. Under Gitlin, Carrier’s market cap has exploded by over $40 billion to $51 billion.

Landing Gitlin presents potential pitfalls, both for Boeing and on Gitlin’s end

Asked to comment on whether Gitlin is under consideration for the top job, or speak about the succession process, a Boeing spokesperson responded by email, “We don’t have a comment on these topics.” A source close to Carrier says that Gitlin is committed to the company. He now lives in Florida near Carrier’s headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens. My sources say that, as it stands now, Gitlin’s pedigree and record make him the best qualified contender. “He’s a very credible candidate if he wants it,” says a former high-ranking airline executive. There’s a strong possibility that the board will move Boeing’s HQ from Arlington, Va., back to Seattle, where most of the commercial planes, and most of the money, are made. “Seattle is where the headquarters should be,” says one source who was a Boeing customer. Whether Gitlin would be willing to resettle in Seattle is a big unknown.

Boeing, as well as regulators and suppliers, could also have misgivings. Gitlin has been on the Boeing board since late June of 2022, and though it’s a short tenure, that he’s been a director during the time Boeing has made such a wrong turn could undermine his support. “The job he’s got now is really well paid and doesn’t have the same headaches as Boeing,” observes another industry stalwart. Landing Gitlin would also be expensive: It could cost Boeing around $150 million to replace the long-term compensation benefits awarded by Carrier.

Still, neither of those possible drawbacks should stand in his way—if the board is convinced that Gitlin is the right person.

Even so, Gitlin’s not the guy to fix the mechanics on the shop floor. He’ll need a partner to fulfill that absolutely essential second role. The only obvious choice is Pat Shanahan, a manufacturing whiz who camped out at the Everett plant in 2008 to fix the stalled 787 Dreamliner program. In October, he parachuted into Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems, to repair the severe gaps in its quality controls. Boeing now plans to purchase Spirit, which it once owned, and hence bring fuselage production in-house. Shanahan also knows Boeing intimately, having worked at the planemaker for 30 years.

The rub: Shanahan will be 62 years old in June. He probably doesn’t have the comforting longevity Gitlin would provide, especially in arguably the highest-pressure production job on the planet. One of my sources sums up the issue: “Getting Gitlin in the top job instead of a pure manufacturing person opens another problem. He’ll need a partner. And as for now, it’s unclear who that could be.”

Another cautionary factor is at play. This will be the most scrutinized CEO search in history. If Gitlin’s the choice, anything in his business history, including possible problems with products at businesses he’s run, will be found and magnified. The same goes for any candidate the board anoints.

According to a manager who still works at Boeing, the workers there have just one condition, a reference to three out of Boeing’s past four leaders who came from the house Jack Welch built. “The running joke around the company is,” he quips, “whatever you do, don’t hire another CEO from GE!”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com