Success, it would appear, is in the eye of the beholder.

Reviewing his company's first-quarter performance  Wednesday, Boeing (NYSE:BA) CEO Jim McNerney sounded an upbeat note: "Performance across the overwhelming majority of our programs remains solid." But does that statement hold water? Investors seem to think so: Boeing shares are in their third consecutive day of post-earnings gains. But judge for yourself:

  • Sales growth for the first quarter of 2009 came in at 3% ...
  • ... which doesn't sound all that bad, until you look at profits, which were cut in half because of a combination of lower prices charged on planes and reduced production rates. Boeing earned only $0.86 per share in Q1.
  • But the scariest number of all related to cash flow from operations, which fell 90% to just $193 million.

Short-hop guidance
Right now, Boeing says to expect $68 billion to $69 billion in revenues this year. But with the landing gear out on profit margins, Boeing now lags competitors Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Raytheon (NYSE:RTN), and Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) in operating margin, and its earnings are expected to top out at $5.00 per share. Bad as this sounds, Boeing's free cash flow picture again looks worst of all. For the year, Boeing looks to check in at as little as $1.1 billion in actual free cash flow.

And over the long haul?
If you want to look at the bright side, Boeing is reducing its rate of airplane construction. That's the right call to make so long as profit per plane is down. It also extends the growth story, in that Boeing will now take longer to burn through its astounding $339 billion backlog of work to be done. On the other hand, I can't help but notice that Boeing booked 28 new orders for commercial aircraft, but there were 32 cancellations of the now long-overdue Boeing 787 -- a net loss of four planes. In other words, take that backlog number with a grain of salt.

Foolish final thought
Why will Boeing's cash generation decline this year? In part because the company plans to make a $500 million contribution to shore up ailing pension plans. Thanks to the stock market slide (pension funds invest in the market and depend on it to grow their assets), we've seen a number of high-profile companies forced to make similar cash infusions: PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP), Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), and AK Steel (NYSE:AKS), to name just a few.

Look for more to do the same. This problem goes beyond Boeing.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing. PepsiCo is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.