As coronavirus decimates demand for jets, Boeing may slash production, cut jobs

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Boeing jets in various stages of completion sit near the delivery center at Paine Field in Everett in January. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The dramatic worldwide collapse in air travel accelerated this weekend as the U.S. expanded its ban on passengers from Europe and other governments enacted their own barriers to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Airline CEOs are comparing the drop in traffic to the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 — when Boeing reduced production from 527 jets in 2001 to just 281 jets two years later. In less than three years following the attacks, Boeing cut 27,000 jobs in Washington state.

Like then, Boeing now faces a stark near-term decision on whether it must slash jet production. That could again spell substantial local layoffs, which until now — even with its 737 MAX production already halted — Boeing has avoided.

Boeing is the largest private employer in Washington state, with about 72,000 employees here. Most of those work on Commercial Airplanes and all those jobs are at risk of at least temporary suspension. Any cuts to that workforce would reverberate sharply throughout the local economy, and its impacts likewise would be felt on Boeing’s global supply chain.

With the Renton narrowbody jet plant already shut down since January because of the extended grounding of the 737 MAX, any cut to or suspension of production in Everett too would mean Boeing’s parts plants in Auburn and Frederickson have virtually no assembly lines to feed, and so they would also likely have to cut or stop work.

The outbreak of coronavirus within Boeing employee ranks — six confirmed cases at the Everett plant and one at the local headquarters in Longacres, with two possible cases from Auburn — may supply another reason for a full-scale temporary halt to production.

A top Boeing executive — speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation — said Sunday that contingency planning at the highest levels of the company is still focused on avoiding layoffs so as to enable the business to recover quickly once the virus emergency passes.

He said Boeing’s leadership is unlikely to announce a firm plan until later in the week, but that for now “the conversation here is leaning even more toward doing everything we can to protect employees.”

“We’ll need them to be back in the saddle quickly when this thing passes over,” he said, adding that “nothing is firm at this time.”

Airline meltdown

Underlying Boeing’s dilemma is the wrenching drama playing out among U.S. and global airlines.

On Friday, Delta Air Lines said it would cut capacity by 40 percent in the next few months, park up to 300 aircraft and defer new jet deliveries. Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian said it was the largest capacity reduction in Delta’s history, including after the 9/11 attacks.

On Saturday, American Airlines announced it will cut 75% of its international flights through May 6 and cut domestic flights by 30% by May. American will ground 135 out of its fleet of 149 widebody jets.

The impact from coronavirus abroad is even worse: To ensure “the survival of British Airways,” that airline’s CEO Alex Cruz told employees Friday that jobs will be cut “perhaps for a short period, perhaps longer-term.”

Low-cost carrier Norwegian, a big 737 MAX and 787 customer, has laid off half its 11,000 employees, and the CEO told the Norwegian government it has “weeks not months” to avert bankruptcy.

According to Swiss airline intelligence provider ch-aviation, Korean Air has grounded about 100 of its 145 passenger jets and airline President Woo Kee-hong told employees in an internal memo that “If the situation continues for a longer period, we may reach the threshold where we cannot guarantee the company’s survival.”

On Sunday, SAS of Scandinavia temporarily laid off 90% of all employees and suspended almost all flights.

And only passengers willing to be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival can fly Air New Zealand or Qantas of Australia into those two countries.

U.S. airlines and the broader aerospace players including Boeing and its suppliers are in urgent talks with the Trump administration, asking for public financial support to keep the industry alive and protect an estimated total of about 2 million direct and indirect aviation-related jobs in the U.S.

Not only are the airlines facing a sharp, immediate plummet in demand, their finances will be wrecked for the near future.

“Airlines will be focused on survival, not taking new jets,” said Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia in an interview Sunday.

For Boeing, the urgent question is whether any airlines want or need the big jets it’s building right now.

Because of the MAX crisis, the assembly lines for that narrowbody jet in Renton are silent. Now production of the larger widebody jets in Everett and in North Charleston, South Carolina, may have to follow.

In the first two months of the year, the impact of coronavirus already began to appear as Boeing delivered only 30 airplanes total from those two final assembly sites, 25% below the nominal widebody jet production rates.

In Everett, a new 787 Dreamliner has taken its first flights and is ready to be delivered to American. Another 787 is ready for delivery to the flag carrier of Israel, El Al, which as of Sunday has suspended almost all its flights.

While it may be too late to defer those two planes, the airlines have nowhere they can fly them. For many of the planes coming behind them and now under assembly, deferred delivery seems certain.

Among the aircraft under assembly in the Everett factory and almost ready to roll out are another 787 for American and a 777 passenger jet for United. In North Charleston, there are two more 787-10s under assembly for United.

Economic impact worse than 9/11?

When novel coronavirus first appeared, the aviation world compared it to the SARS outbreak in 2003 and hoped for a similar outcome: a three-month slump in demand and a rapid recovery afterward. But as Bastian noted, this is a reckoning more comparable to the hit from 9/11.

And since no one knows if this slump will last three months, six months or a year, when Southwest CEO Gary Kelly last week made the comparison to 9/11, he told employees that the economic slump this time “may be worse.”

Adam Pilarski, veteran analyst with consulting firm Avitas, said Boeing’s position today may indeed be tougher because in the past year the MAX crisis has been straining its financial resources.

Like the airlines, Pilarski said Boeing “will have to think survival.”

After 9/11, with that mindset, Boeing reacted immediately to a similarly rapid fall-off in demand.

Exactly one week after the terrorist attacks that used Boeing jets to kill almost 3,000 Americans, the Boeing Commercial Airplanes division announced drastic production cuts and plans to lay off between 20,000 and 30,000 workers by the end of 2002.

Then-CEO Phil Condit explained these “tough business decisions” as necessary to “enhance the company’s ability to maintain its solid financial position, strong liquidity and premier debt ratings.”

“These are critical factors in times of business uncertainty and financial stress,” Condit said.

In an interview in 2016, the CEO of Commercial Airplanes at the time of the attacks, Alan Mulally, recalled the decision he had to make as “devastating.”

“The effect on our business was dramatic,” Mulally recalled. “You have to move decisively to match your production resources with the demand. If not, you start burning through so much cash you put the company at risk.”

That’s the threat Boeing again faces now, compounded by the lack of revenue from the 737 MAX and the money it must spend to return that jet to service.

Boeing has the experience of 9/11 and of SARS and other lesser external shocks behind it. So its leadership can be reasonably confident that the long-term trend of growing global air travel will inevitably resume eventually. The problem is how to survive the short-term impact, without knowing exactly how short-term it may be.

When Boeing halted production of the MAX in January, it made the decision not to lay workers off because it anticipated restarting the assembly line around April and getting clearance to fly the MAX by the summer. Management said it wants to retain the skilled workforce during the intervening months to be able to resume production as planned.

As the coronavirus’ economic threat escalates daily around the world, company leaders have to act soon to either slow or stop production. Their decision will likely depend on the response from the government to industry’s appeals.

The question is: Will Boeing be able to maintain jobs to preserve talent for the future recovery? Or will management revert to the thinking of Condit and Mulally in 2001?

Aboulafia said that while slowing or suspending production seems inevitable, “laying off people is probably the wrong call.”

Still, he’s worried that Boeing’s “crack cocaine addiction to shareholder returns” going back almost two decades will produce a different answer that puts protecting the stock price and the current cash position ahead of the workforce and the future.

Pilarski of Avitas suggested Boeing could negotiate a temporary suspension that at least lets employees retain their medical and pension benefits.

The top Boeing executive said that “as I stand here today, mass layoffs is an unlikely outcome.”

“The situation is incredibly fluid,” he then cautioned. “There are too many unknowns and no guaranteed outcome.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com; .