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Facing questions in public for the first time since the grounding of the 787 fleet, Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney couldn’t say Wednesday when or how the crisis would end.

“When we know the answer, we’ll know the answer and we’ll act on it,” McNerney said, in a roundabout phrase. “I really can’t comment on the specifics.”

Despite all the unknowns, Boeing said its earnings forecast assumes “no significant financial impact” from the battery problems that left the worldwide fleet of Dreamliners unable to fly.

Those problems cast a dark shadow over the glowing financial numbers Boeing reported for 2012.

Digging into those figures reveals that the 787 program cost Boeing roughly $7 billion more last year than the revenue it brought in. But that wasn’t apparent on the reported bottom line, which was McNerney’s focus.

“2012 was a very strong year for Boeing with higher revenues and core earnings as well as outstanding cash generation,” McNerney declared on a morning conference call with analysts and reporters. He promised ahead “a bigger, better, stronger Boeing than we have ever been.”

And yes, last year was a very good year.

Boeing’s total revenue for 2012 jumped 19 percent year-over-year to a record of nearly $82 billion, with $49 billion coming from the commercial-airplane unit.

The company reported a net profit for 2012 of $3.9 billion. Profit from operations was $6.4 billion, with the lion’s share — $4.7 billion — coming from the commercial-airplane unit.

Boeing’s operations generated $9.1 billion in cash and the company ended the year with a hoard of $13.5 billion in cash and liquid assets.

Big 787 losses

All those profit figures, however, reflect Boeing’s “program accounting” method — an approach, approved by federal regulators, that smooths out its costs and profits over multiple years, in the case of the 787 over more than a decade of planned production.

That masks the upfront costs of new programs like the 787 and the 747-8, because those programs lose money in the early years of production and are assumed to make it up later.

The 787 is still in the heavy money-losing phase, with each jet delivered currently bringing in roughly $100 million but costing about $200 million to build, said Barclays Capital analyst Carter Copeland.

A Boeing chart updated Wednesday shows the difference. Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ $4.7 billion operating profit under program accounting turns into a $3.7 billion loss if calculated purely on the basis of airplanes delivered last year.

The difference, a massive $8.4 billion, is Boeing’s cash loss last year on the 787 and the 747-8. The bulk of it, about $7 billion, belongs to the Dreamliner.

The mature 737, 777 and 767 programs brought in billions to offset some of those losses, and the program accounting smooths out the rest on Boeing’s reported earnings.

Boeing stock rose 94 cents to close at $74.59.

787 battery crisis

On the Dreamliner’s Jan. 16 grounding, McNerney expressed frustration that “we are limited by the rules of the investigation on what we can say publicly.”

Federal investigators are making “good progress … in narrowing down the potential cause” of the 787 battery fire at the Boston airport and the in-flight emergency caused by a smoldering battery in Japan, he said.

But he cautioned, “I can’t predict an outcome and I’m not going to.”

Nevertheless, he promised that the outcome “will restore confidence in the 787 and Boeing.”

McNerney also responded to questions stemming from reports Tuesday evening in The Seattle Times and The New York Times that 787 lithium-ion batteries had been repeatedly sent back to the Japanese manufacturer before the latest incidents, most because they had over-discharged and were effectively dead.

The Seattle Times reported more than 100 returned.

”There’s been no instance that we’re aware of where a battery has been replaced due to any kind of safety concerns,” McNerney said.

“Batteries are replaced on airplanes every day, every type of battery including these batteries,” he said.

Boeing said Wednesday that five or six batteries are removed and replaced every day on Boeing planes — “about 2,000 per year.”

It has nearly 12,000 commercial jetliners in service worldwide. So the battery replacements on the 787 — with a fleet of only 50 in service and about 45 more being reworked in Everett — still seems very high, even if spread over several years.

McNerney, who declined to specify the number of 787 battery replacements, conceded the rate is “slightly higher” than predicted.

Full speed ahead

McNerney made clear that neither the two serious battery incidents nor the high rate of replacements have yet turned Boeing away from the lithium-ion technology.

“Nothing we’ve learned yet has told us that we’ve made the wrong choice on the battery technology,” McNerney said. “We feel good about the battery technology and its fit for the airplane.”

Until the cause of those battery incidents emerges, Boeing is assuming the impact will be no more than a bump along the road to its expected profits.

Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith said explicitly that the current earnings forecast for 2013, between $5 and $5.20 per share, “assumes no significant financial impact resulting from the FAA directive on the 787 program.”

“If this assumption changes after we have gained greater fidelity, we will let you know,” he added.

While the 787 crisis requires the full attention of hundreds of specialized engineering experts, McNerney called it “a highly compartmentalized issue” that is “not drawing from any critical resources on any other growth programs.”

He said another team is proceeding with development of the 787-10, “in anticipation of a potential launch this year.” And Boeing is close to offering for sale to customers the proposed new version of the 777, the 777X.

McNerney said 787 production will continue unabated for now, and Boeing is sticking to its plan to double the production rate to 10 jets a month by year end.

The company has given its 787 suppliers “no instructions to slow down,” he said.

“Business as usual,” he said, is the message to suppliers. “Let’s keep building airplanes. And then let’s ramp up as we’d planned.”

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or