Will Boeing’s performance continue to surprise?

Courtesy Seattlepi/Associated Press

Courtesy Seattlepi/Associated Press

YET again, Boeing the company has surprised aviation observers with better-than-expected second quarter performance – in spite of recent problems with the B787 Dreamliner jet as many of them are apt to point out. Really, should they even be that surprised?

Boeing reported a 13-per-cent increase in March-to-June profit (US$1.09 billion) on the back of growing sales of commercial airplanes and military equipment, fuelled by demands from Asia and the Middle East. Following the lift of the global order that grounded the Dreamliner pending investigations of the fire hazard posed by the plane’s lithium-ion batteries, Boeing delivered 16 of the jet in the second quarter. This, together with the growing sales of the B737s and B777s along with military equipment – again, in spite of cuts by the Pentagon on military spending – has contributed to large inflow of cash.

Consider nevertheless how the sizeable jet business is almost one duopolized by Boeing and Airbus Industries. For many major airlines, it is often a choice of either Boeing or Airbus for an aircraft that boasts similar range and capacity. Also, commitment by airlines to an order is usually made months and years in advance, and so long as the economic climate holds up, default on orders is not expected. Airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have openly declared their support of Boeing.

In fact, airlines are known to jostle to be the “first to operate” as an added not just marketing edge but also PR hoopla, as in the case of Singapore Airlines launching the Airbus A380 jet and All Nippon Airways, the Dreamliner. So, with the Dreamliner back up in the sky, the immediate and short-term prospects for Boeing is not going to look any worse – and, as it turned out, better in fact – as the company fulfills its obligation. Boeing has an order for 930 Dreamliner jets to date, and only 66 have been delivered so far.

Early observers had said compensation for the grounding of the Dreamliner in January until late April this year would run into millions and impact negatively on Boeing’s bottom-line. Boeing chief executive W James McNerney Jr said such details of the compensation had been finalized but that the payout would not have a material impact on the plane-maker’s earnings. Referring to the more recent incident when smoke was detected in the Ethiopian Airlines’ Dreamliner jet parked at London Heathrow Airport, Mr McNerney reiterated that the downtime cost of repairing the aircraft would have “very little” financial impact on either Boeing or Ethiopian since the tab would be picked up insurance.

Now, that should take out any more surprise in the near term, and investors might reconsider picking up the Boeing stock before it is too late. If it does surprise yet again, it may not be in spite of but because of the Dreamliner.

Boeing blues

Three months after the grounding of the B787-Dreamliner and while Boeing struggles to resolve the issue to get the plane back up in the sky, a new problem has landed on its lap – this time, concerning the B737 jets. The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airworthiness directive for more than 1,000 B737 planes operating in its airspace (which also applies in Canada) to be inspected for faulty tail pins that may have prematurely corroded, causing pilots to lose control of the plane.

The FAA said: “We are issuing this AD to prevent premature failure of the attach pins, which could cause reduced structural integrity of the horizontal stabilizer to fuselage attachment, resulting in loss of control of the airplane.”

It is a precautionary move, but likely a costly one for the airlines that have a large number of the B737 jets in their fleet, such as WestJet Airlines of Canada. Since the B737 is a short to medium-range aircraft, it is likely that regional airlines including cargo operators are likely to be the most affected. But safety is not something that you can or want to downplay in the business of flying.

This could not have come at a worse time upon the heel of a Lion Air crash into the waters, short landing at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport in Indonesia just this week. Fortunately all passengers survived. There was no connection between the incident and FAA’s directive – the way that the grounding of the B787-Dreamliner was consequent upon sparks aboard a Japan Airlines plane initially suspected to be caused by the lithium-ion battery pack – and investigators have yet to establish the cause. It might even be extraneous to Boeing. Lion Air, which is Indonesia’s second largest airline and one of the fastest growing in the region, is banned from operating within the US and European Union over safety concerns.

Photo: Reuters/Stringer Indonesia

Photo: Reuters/Stringer Indonesia

But what came across as frightfully familiar was how the fuselage of the Lion Air plane broke apart, recalling similar mishaps experienced by four other airlines that include Continental Airlines in 2008, American Airlines in 2009, Aires Airlines (Colombia) in 2010 and Caribbean Airlines in 2011. Mind you, the B737 has been around since the 1960s and is a favourite plane for regional flights. It is in fact the best selling jet in the history of aviation.

Boeing will have much to do to repair its image. The aircraft business is dominated by two players – Boeing itself and Airbus, and the competition is such that for the bigger jets, the decision to buy which make and model usually comes down to either one of them. Aircraft orders can span several years, and timing is important.

Then, of course, as things settle, there is the looming question of compensation for downtime if Boeing is found to be contributory to its customer airlines losing out on opportunities. At least one airline – Qatar Airways – affected by the grounding of the B787-Dreamliner has publicly announced it will seek compensation from Boeing. Qatar chairman Akbar Al Baker said: “Definitely we will demand compensation. We are not buying airplanes from them to put in a museum.”