Earnings gave Boeing stock a liftoff this week, but the really good news is just getting started. Photo: Boeing

Boeing (NYSE:BA) may have lost the airplane orders race in 2014. And you can tell that Boeing's sad about that. Why, you can follow the trail of tears ... all the way to the bank.

On Wednesday, Boeing reported Q4 and full-year 2014 earnings that just about literally "blew out da box." Revenue, earnings, and backlog at Boeing all hit record levels -- and guidance for the year ahead suggests 2015 could be even better. But let's take a step back and review the relevant numbers for what Boeing just accomplished, before getting into what it's set to do next. In 2014, Boeing reported:

  • 5% growth in sales to $86.6 billion
  • 70 basis points worth of improvement in operating profit margins (now at 9.8%)
  • 14% better operating profit (at $7.5 billion)
  • And 24% better earnings -- $7.38 per share

Not even trying to contain his enthusiasm, CEO Jim McNerney boasted: "Strong operating performance in the final quarter of 2014 propelled us to some of our best-ever results and sealed a fifth consecutive year of core operating earnings growth." What's more, McNerney promised that Boeing is "strengthening a powerful business platform that is providing increased returns for our shareholders." Here in the early days of 2015, Boeing is already confident that it will end the year with:

  • $94.5 billion to $96.5 billion in revenues
  • A good chance at growing operating profit margins even further -- to perhaps as high as 10%
  • $8.10 to $8.30 per share in profits
  • And operating cash flow of $9 billion

Granted, minus expected capital investments of $2.8 billion, that would only leave Boeing with $6.2 billion in positive free cash flow -- down $400 million from 2014's results. But it would still be enough cash profit to leave the stock trading at only 16 times forward FCF. That seems hardly an exorbitant price to pay for a company paying its shareholders a 2.7% annual dividend yield, and expected to grow profits at nearly 12.9% annually over the next five years. (The more so when you consider that Boeing's strong cash position gives the stock an enterprise value somewhat cheaper than what Boeing's market cap suggests it costs.)

Boeing's big risk ...
If one thing can derail this bullish prognosis, it's the fact that the money Boeing spends on pension contributions -- which cost the company $1.5 billion in 2013, but less than $800 million last year -- is expected to swell to $2.1 billion in 2015. Subtract this sum from Boeing's free cash flow number, therefore, and 2015's cash haul could be quite a bit less than the pure FCF number suggests -- perhaps as little as $5.1 billion.

... is really your big opportunity
But personally, I wouldn't let that scare you off. The simple fact of the matter is that, at Boeing, pensions are now a short-term concern. Here's why:

Do you remember how, early last year, Boeing won a union vote to change the terms of its contract with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers? In exchange for agreeing to build 777 airliners in Seattle, Boeing got the union to agree to a pension freeze at the end of 2016. From then on, retirement benefits will come in the form of 401(k) contributions, while new hires get no pensions at all -- just 401(k)s.

The upshot: Beginning in 2017, Boeing will cease having to commit large piles of cash to its pension plans. And beginning in 2017, Boeing's free cash flow should become an ever-rising tide.

Long story short, as happy as investors should be with Boeing's earnings numbers this week, the future is brighter still. The good news out of Boeing is only just getting started.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.