Man, the hits just keep coming at Boeing (NYSE: BA ) , don't they?
This week began with big (bad) news for Boeing, when a Japan Air Lines-operated Boeing 787 Dreamliner suffered an electrical fire. Apparently, the fire began in an electrical equipment bay after the plane had landed at Boston's Logan International Airport, and deplaned all its passengers. Pilots soon noticed smoke in the cockpit and discovered the fire. The blaze was quickly extinguished, but no sooner were the flames out than a battery housed within the same bay exploded.
This news was bad for Boeing, and almost as bad for United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) , which apparently built the unit for Boeing. (Actually, when you see the words, "plane," "fire," and "exploded" in proximity, the news is rarely good).
Wall Street soon rushed to Boeing's defense, pooh-poohing the news. Wells Fargo went so far as to reiterate its "buy" rating on the stock, calling the fire news a "buying opportunity" and "not be material to near-term results." Jefferies said the 2% sell-off in Boeing shares was "overdone" because, after all, "no other similar incident to this one" had happened before, and anyone worried that this was more than isolated incident was overstating the case.
They couldn't have been more wrong.
It never rains, but it pours ... acid rain
No sooner had Wells and Jefferies uttered their jinxed endorsements than out came Boeing with even more bad news. Also at Logan, the same airline reported a problem with almost the same type of Boeing plane (a different 787). On Tuesday, a second JAL Dreamliner was taxiing toward takeoff when someone looked down where the plane had been and noticed a small oil patch on the pavement.
No. Check that. They noticed a 40-gallon jet fuel spill. Oops. The JAL plane was forced to return to the gate, debark its passengers, and cancel its flight while engineers tried to figure out just what was going on.
It pours and pours and pours
So I guess that makes this two isolated incidents, right? Well, maybe not. Fact is, since making its first delivery to inaugural customer All Nippon Airways back in September 2011, the 787 has been running into quite a bit of trouble, and for quite some time. It's just taken investors a while to wake up to it.
Running down the list quickly:
- Dec. 17, 2012: United Airlines (NYSE: UAL ) announces it's experiencing electrical "issues" with a 787 in its fleet.
- Dec. 13, 2012: Qatar Airways grounds its three-plane 787 fleet on the date of their maiden flight, citing similar electrical problems.
- Dec. 4, 2012: A United 787 flight to Newark, N.J., conducts an emergency landing when one of its power generators apparently fails.
- July 28, 2012: A brand-new 787 preparing for takeoff from Charleston, S.C., is forced to scrub its flight as a piece of the General Electric (NYSE: GE ) -built engine "fractured, spewing shards of metal and sparking a brushfire."
And of course, if you think all the way back to November 2010, a Boeing 787 undergoing a test flight suffered a catastrophic electrical failure, in which a control panel literally melted -- with a planeload of FAA inspectors aboard. At the time, Boeing said this was due to some foreign "debris" left in the electrical panel, and not a problem with the plane's design, per se. Still, that incident forced Boeing to ground its entire 787 test fleet for six weeks while it redesigned parts of the electrical system.
See a pattern? If you do, then you might want to clue in Boeing CEO Jim McNerney -- because just last month he repeated the line that all of this is no big deal. Says McNerney, the Dreamliner is merely voicing "the normal number of squawks on a new airplane." The problems, in short, are "not unusual."
Keep that comforting thought in mind, the next time you step aboard a 7870.
What happens now?
Spurred to action by the back-to-back incidents in Boston, the National Transportation Safety Board is at long last reported to be looking into the matter and may announce a formal investigation of the Dreamliner's safety.
Meanwhile, not content to wait on the regulators, United Airlines says it's run inspections of its own already. The Wall Street Journal reports that the airline has discovered improperly installed wiring on one of the planes -- in the same spot where the fire broke out on the JAL airliner Monday. (And how smart does Delta (NYSE: DAL ) look now, for having delayed its purchase of the 787?)
Houston? Boeing has a problem
McNerny's protestations notwithstanding, Boeing has a problem. Beyond the obvious risk that it's going to have to remedy the problem, retrofitting planes to fix a problematic electrical bay across a 50-Dreamliner fleet and taking charges to earnings for the work, the planemaker's marquee product is rapidly developing a reputation for being unsafe at any speed.
Boeing needs to get on top of this, and tout de suite. Instead, what's it doing? Dismissing its problems as "squawks," and provoking an unnecessary labor strike with the very Boeing engineers and technicians it will depend upon to fix the problem. Suffice it to say, this is not the approach investors want it to take.
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