What happened

Shares of Boeing (BA -0.65%) have been grounded in recent years due to concerns about the pandemic and issues with its 737 MAX. Neither of those issues are completely resolved, and Boeing shares dropped 4.9% on Wednesday due to worries about a new twist in the pandemic.

So what

It has been a rough few years for Boeing investors. The company was hit first by the 18-month grounding of its 737 MAX after a pair of fatal accidents. Before the MAX could get airborne again, the pandemic hit, causing travel demand to evaporate and leading airlines to focus more on cost control than buying new airplanes.

A Boeing 737 MAX in flight.

Image source: Boeing.

The stock rallied early in 2021 as 737 MAX deliveries ramped back up and travel demand increased thanks to vaccines, but investors on Wednesday got a reminder that the pandemic is not yet behind us. The first confirmed case of the new omicron COVID variant in the United States was reported in California, putting markets under pressure.

It is way too soon to say whether this new variant will lead to a falloff in travel demand or cause governments to impose new travel restrictions. But it does seem clear that the best-case-scenario of airlines quickly returning to normal operations and ramping up growth is unlikely to materialize. Rather, the rebound in aviation is likely to be slow and stuttering. And that means Boeing has a difficult sales challenge heading into 2022.

The MAX, though back in service, continues to haunt the company as well. U.S. lawmakers earlier in the week asked the Federal Aviation Administration what is being done to hold Boeing accountable for the issues surrounding the plane. And Boeing's other models, including its 787 Dreamliner, remain under intense scrutiny as the company attempts to work through engineering concerns.

Now what

We still don't know much about the omicron variant, so we can't say for sure whether or not we will end up back in a lockdown or see a repeat of the massive equity sell-off that happened at the beginning of the pandemic. For now, anyway, the lows Boeing hit during those challenging days will likely hold, and over time there is potential for shares to gain significant altitude from here.

But those days feel like they are a long way off, and investors willing to bet on an aviation recovery have a lot of different options including airline stocks and plane lessors. Boeing, for the foreseeable future, is likely to experience turbulence and be range-bound due to the pandemic. Investors should be cautious before going shopping for bargains.