Aerospace & Defense

When Will the Headwinds on Boeing Stock Lighten Up?

When Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) reported monthly order and delivery totals on Tuesday, there was little good news to be had. Boeing stock, which had risen about 73% since early May, dropped by about 10%. Not only did cancellations top new orders, but Boeing delivered just four planes in the month of May.

One of the delivered planes, a 737-800, went to the company’s defense division where it will be fitted out as a Poseidon P-8A for the U.S. Navy. The other three were all freighters, two destined for a Chinese airline and one for UPS. No 787 Dreamliners were delivered to customers last month.

Boeing’s net new orders for the first five months of the year is negative 615 commercial jets. That collapse is a result of the grounding of the 737 Max and the impact of COVID-19 on the airlines that buy Boeing’s planes. Air travel had fallen by some 95% year over year by late April, and Boeing’s customers are either delaying deliveries or canceling them as they struggle to keep their balance sheets in something resembling good order.

The dismal delivery numbers are largely due to the coronavirus pandemic that has forced the slowdown in 787 manufacturing in Washington and South Carolina.

Are Passengers Beginning to Return to the Air?

Last Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 440,000 passengers, the most in months. On the same date a year ago, TSA screened 2.7 million. In April, there were days when TSA screened fewer than 100,000 travelers.

According to the International Air Travel Association (IATA), passenger totals plunged 94.3% year over year in April 2019 as the COVID-19-related travel restrictions virtually shut down domestic and international air travel. That’s the worst decline rate in the history of IATA traffic data since the organization began tracking in 1990.

The slightly better news is that daily flight totals rose by 30% between the low point on April 21 and May 27. Most of the gain came in domestic traffic and was built on a base that was barely more than 5% of the 2019 total.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, commented:

April was a disaster for aviation as air travel almost entirely stopped. But April may also represent the nadir of the crisis. Flight numbers are increasing. Countries are beginning to lift mobility restrictions. And business confidence is showing improvement in key markets such as China, Germany, and the US. These are positive signs as we start to rebuild the industry from a stand-still. The initial green shoots will take time—possibly years—to mature.

When Does Boeing Benefit From Rising Passenger Traffic?

Boeing has two major problems: the grounding of the 737 Max and the COVID-19-driven catastrophe in airline passenger traffic. Only getting the 737 Max back in the air is under Boeing’s control, and even that control is shared with civil aviation authorities around the world.

Those authorities have faced their own troubles coping with the pandemic, and that has slowed recertification of the 737 Max. On one hand, that’s a problem for Boeing, but on the other hand, the company is saved from having to build more planes that customers don’t want right now.

Overall though, the company likely will have to discount sharply the more than 400 737 Maxes it has stored around the country in order to get them delivered and reduce Boeing’s inventory of unsold planes in order to keep its production lines going.

Refer again to de Juniac’s statement about how long a full recovery will take: “possibly years.” That raises the question, of course, can Boeing survive for years?

Only a few manufacturing giants could withstand the turmoil that Boeing has faced in the past 18 months or so and that it faces for the next few years at least. As evidenced by the company’s recent sale of $25 billion in new debt, investors continue to believe in Boeing. It’s one of just two makers of commercial passenger jets, and rival Airbus fared no better in May.

Like Boeing, Airbus wrote no new orders for its commercial planes in May. The company also recorded no cancellations and delivered 24 planes.

While its cash flow remains meager due to the lack of deliveries, Boeing’s balance sheet is strong enough to attract more buyers for its debt should that become necessary. But only if the 737 Max is back in the air and the company is generating some cash flow again.