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Boeing's Nightmare Liner

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Enough is enough, Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) .

Two years ago, when its maiden flight was supposed to usher in a new era of high-speed, low fuel-consumption aircraft for the world's airlines -- and a new era of profits for Boeing shareholders -- the "Boeing Dreamliner" name was apropos. But now you need to make it official: The 787 is now and forevermore to be designated the Boeing Nightmare Liner.

Yesterday, Boeing announced its latest delay in the maiden voyage of "ZA001," Boeing's code for the first prototype 787. The stock promptly crashed -- down 6.5% on the day -- and has continued to burn today -- down another 6% as of this writing. Which brings Boeing to a total of over 60% worth of market cap destroyed since the company first began announcing delays in the project.

Misery loves company
Nor does the damage end there. A whole string of suppliers -- from Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) to United Tech (NYSE: UTX  ) to Spirit Aerosystems (NYSE: SPR  ) -- depend on Boeing getting its act together so that they can bring parts operations up to speed. Meanwhile, customers such as Continental (NYSE: CAL  ) and AMR (NYSE: AMR  ) , parent company of American Airlines, who have ordered large batches of 787s, need the plane desperately in order to cut their fuel costs.

Although, as the Wall Street Journal's story on the delay pointed out, the airlines' dismay may be tempered by the facts that:

  • A decline in air traffic has many companies delaying or even canceling their 787 orders in an attempt to reduce capacity until demand picks up
  • Depending on the specifics of their purchase contracts, the airlines may be able to extract penalties from Boeing for failure to deliver their planes on time.

The "SODDI" defense: Some other dude did it
Boeing blames its woes on a series of unfortunate coincidences that have slowed development: parts shortages and assembly issues with its suppliers, redesigns, and of course, the crippling IAM labor strike late last year. But the truth is that this is a disaster of Boeing's own doing.

Once upon a time, I urged Boeing not to make promises it could not fulfill ("underpromise, overdeliver," I believe is how the saying goes). Yet, since that April 2008 delay (according to The Wall Street Journal, the fourth in what is now a series of six and counting), Boeing pushed back the 787's arrival date in December in addition to the newest delay.

Worse still, Boeing admits that it was aware of the 787's structural defect -- the weakness in the plane's side-of-body near where the wings attach -- as far back as last month. Yet as recently as last week, Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson was still telling investors that his bird "could fly today." A Boeing spokesperson averred by saying Boeing "truly believed" that ZA001 would fly in June, but that after failing to fix the defect in time, Carson became convinced that canceling the test flight was "while difficult, the prudent step for us to take."

Red ink, and red herrings
No one's disputing that, Mr. Carson. Certainly, your stock would have suffered far worse had you proceeded with the test only to have the ZA001's wings fall off in midair. I shudder to think of the legal liabilities, even lengthier delays in production, and lost sales that such a disaster would have caused. But that's not the point. Nor is the exact severity of the problem.

The real point is that you should never have promised us that the plane would be ready by X date in the first place if you were uncertain that you could deliver. The old saw: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me" comes to mind. And it gets this Fool to wondering what consequence "Fool us six times in a row" should entail ...

Foolish takeaway
Boeing's latest snafu has so far cost its investors $4 billion in market cap in two days' time, and I for one think it's about time we stopped the bleeding. Does anybody have Alan Mulally's phone number over at Ford (NYSE: F  ) ? I hear he's got some small experience building airplanes. Maybe when he's done fixing Ford, he could be enticed back to Boeing?

I can see the job ad now: "Wanted: Veteran manufacturing exec needed to pull blue chip plane builder out of a tailspin. Aerospace experience desired. Ability to think before speaking essential." 

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing, but isn't particularly proud of the fact. Spirit AeroSystems Holdings is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (21)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 5:15 PM, james27613 wrote:

    if it don't say Boeing, I ain't going... to fly on it.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 5:22 PM, wweaver66 wrote:

    "The old saw: "Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you" comes to mind."

    I thought it was just the opposite - Fool me once, shame on YOU, fool me twice, shame on ME (i.e. if you keep being a sucker, it's your own fault).

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 6:12 PM, Bill7878 wrote:

    Check the time line. You will see that the 787 program plan was fully defined while Alan Mulally was in charge.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 6:14 PM, lardoggydogg wrote:

    Bill and weaver, you are both correct. Who is wrong, again, is the 'Fool' who wrote this article! Sheesh . . .

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2009, at 8:54 PM, bmi2000 wrote:

    MULLALY was the guy that started this outsourcing mess to begin with. thats the problem. they moved their supply base half the world away for a few dollars saved. they have already said they will never do it again. having been involved in the 757 767 and the 777 rollouts i can assure you this is mostly the fault of dealing with people that dont do business like boeing does. Think 30,000 oversize rivets from china and airframes that are 1\4 of an inch off from italy.

  • Report this Comment On June 30, 2009, at 10:10 AM, igother wrote:

    787 has had two program managers, originally Mike Bair and currently Pat Shanahan.

    As for Mulally, there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of the outsourcing and the aircraft itself is an amazing new example of materials development but when you eject the father of such a complex system of manufacturing for one of the most intricate engineering systems extant, then you will hit a wall and quick.

    As it is, suspicions must fall to the board reluctant to give the store to such a charismatic and popular figure after its then recent experiences with CEO's.

    787 will be a wonderful airframe. Sadly, Boeing will suffer for it's lack of insight of it's own talent. But, at least Ford will benefit.

  • Report this Comment On May 30, 2010, at 4:27 AM, yosemitebean wrote:

    I fly Boeing. My father was one of the Senior Design Engineers on the DC-10 and others of that era. I fly made in the USA only. I don't want to see made in France or made in China on anything that I am going to fly on.

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