The Boeing Turnaround Loses Fuel

For a day or two it looked as though Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) had smooth air ahead. The company has been taking orders for its new 787 Dreamliner at a record clip and the first delivery of a new freight-hauling version of its 747 was set for Monday, September 19th. That delivery was suddenly cancelled by the customer, Belgium’s Cargolux, just two days before the 747-8F was scheduled to leave Seattle. The cancellation is a crushing blow to Boeing’s turnaround.

We noted last Friday that the company still has some issues, including a labor dispute over its new South Carolina plant where the company plans to build the Dreamliner. We didn’t expect this. It’s probably fair to say that Boeing didn’t either, and Cargolux’s web site still touts its status as the launch customer for the new freighter, which indicates either that Cargolux thinks the dispute can be solved or that it doesn’t care about updating its web site. Boeing has taken down its splashy front-page story on the Cargolux plane.

According to a report from Bloomberg, Cargolux’s board of directors rejected delivery for unresolved “contractual issues.” Because the plane has passed all its safety tests and it presumably meets all the technical specifications that Cargolux set, the rejection likely falls into the lap of utterly incompetent Boeing management.

The dispute almost certainly revolves around money. The new freighter is two years behind schedule, and Cargolux could  be seeking an adjustment either to the price or the number of planes on order. Cargolux, Europe’s largest freight-only air carrier, was to receive two planes this month and had placed an order for 11 more with purchase rights on an additional 10 and options for yet another 2. That’s 25 orders at risk because Boeing’s management can’t sort out the contract?

Not only that, but this rejection is a public relations disaster. Nearly every analyst believed that Boeing had finally turned the corner and Boeing had been getting positive press coverage for the first time in years. Even 24/7 Wall Street thought the company’s management might have actually done something right. Or at least, had not done anything wrong lately.

Cargolux’s rejection of the new planes should cost some Boeing executive his job. Our candidate is Boeing’s CEO, Jim McNerney, who has presided over every one of the company’s missteps since taking over in 2005. Last month’s loss of Boeing’s exclusive 737 sales deal with American Airlines forced an executive re-shuffle in the company’s sales leadership, but nobody got fired.

On July 1, 2005, when McNerney took over as CEO, Boeing’s share price was $64.68. The stock closed at $65.38 on Friday. During McNerney’s tenure of now more than six years, the share price is a whopping $0.50/share higher.

Boeing’s board might have waited to long to say good-bye to McNerney. If the board tosses him now, it will not be viewed as decisiveness, but as finding a scapegoat. McNerney’s done enough, even without this latest catastrophe, to have been fired many times. But the board is not likely to do it now because firing him now only makes the board look bad, not McNerney.

Still, McNerney’s departure should be coming soon. And it’s about time.

Paul Ausick

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