Shares of Boeing (NYSE: BA) have been on a tear over the past year, up more than 70%. In fact, in recent weeks Boeing shares hit all-time record highs of more than $120 per share. The past year for Boeing has been defined by the company's push to ramp up production and deliver its most cutting-edge products, particularly the flagship 787 Dreamliner. This process, however, has not gone smoothly: The Dreamliner was launched three-and-a-half years late, and its early launch was so plagued by problems that in early 2012 the entire global fleet was grounded due to concerns over the planes' batteries. Last week, yet another Dreamliner was grounded after only a few weeks in service.
The grounded plane belonged to Norwegian Air, a low-cost regional airline that ordered eight Dreamliner 787s to launch its long-haul ambitions, two of which have been delivered. Norwegian Air is a small customer, making up less than 1% of the Dreamliner's total orders, but it is an important one nonetheless. Last March, Norwegian Air was the first airline to enroll in Boeing's GoldCare maintenance program, contracting Boeing to perform regular maintenance on its planes. Norwegian Air also contracts Boeing for spare parts and engineering. The GoldCare program represents Boeing's strategy to expand into the value fleet services market, which airlines typically either perform themselves or contract to third parties.
With Norwegian Air relying on Boeing not only to deliver its planes but also to maintain and service them, the airline has reported that just 49% of its 787 flights have left on time. This terrible track record is what led the airline to take one of its two planes out of service so that Boeing can bring it up to flying standards. In the meantime, Norwegian Air will be leasing an A340 from Boeing's archrival Airbus.
This draws attention to the concern that despite the 787's greater fuel efficiency and lower operating costs, airlines can still stand to lose money on the 787 due to the craft's lower reliability. Norwegian Air's grounded Dreamliner was a $212 billion investment, and every day the plane is grounded, every canceled flight, and every delay means the payback period for that investment is pushed further and further out. In turn, if airline customers hesitate to buy the 787 until these reliability problems are solved once and for all, Boeing's payback period on the Dreamliner program will be delayed even more.
As the global economy expands, air travel will grow as well, representing a potentially vast market for Boeing. However, it will only be able to fully capitalize on this opportunity if it can quickly and permanently put to rest the reliability problems for its newest and most in-demand products.
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