Just hours after the 787 Dreamliner completed its first passenger flight in Japan, Boeing said it will at least break even on the cumulative manufacturing costs of the program by the time it has built 1,100 of the jets just over a decade from now.
Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner finally entered passenger service in Japan late Tuesday Seattle time. Hours later, Boeing gave an optimistic assessment of the potential future profitability of the program.
Over the next 10 years, Boeing said Wednesday, it will deliver 1,100 Dreamliners and at least break even on the cost of building them.
The projection doesn’t imply that the troubled jet program, plagued by earlier disastrous setbacks, will recover heavy upfront development costs and make money overall. Some analysts believe that may never happen.
Still, Boeing Chairman and CEO Jim McNerney offered Wall Street the upbeat view that the 787 production process will show a steep efficiency improvement within the next six months, boosting prospects for future earnings.
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He predicted Boeing will rapidly reduce the cost of making the jets — more quickly than on any previous program — once the first 50 or 60 have rolled off the line.
“We’ll have to see when we get there, but it’s looking pretty clean after that,” McNerney said during Boeing’s third-quarter earnings call.
Workers in Everett are putting together Dreamliner No. 47, and this week the assembly line is accelerating from building two planes per month to 2.5.
The first 40 out of the Everett factory required massive and repeated rework, and the next 10 to 20 also need modifications because of design changes after flight testing.
“We’re basically getting through those now,” said Chief Financial Officer James Bell. “You’ll see a steeper drop down to a normal learning curve after we get through those initial problems.”
Bell asserted that once the extraordinary problems of the program’s start are behind Boeing and production becomes smooth around 2015, further cost reduction “will be pretty normal and pretty consistent with what we saw on the 777.”
Carter Copeland, aerospace analyst with Barclays Capital, said in an interview that reducing those costs will depend on suppliers.
On the 777, the costs were largely inside Boeing’s own factories and within its control.
But Boeing’s business model for the 787 relies heavily on outsourcing, so the costs are baked into the big sections that arrive from suppliers around the globe. To reduce costs, Boeing will have to renegotiate pricing contracts.
Because suppliers were so heavily hit by the program’s delays, Boeing had to raise the prices it paid them for the early units that cost so much to build.
“At some point in the future, that contractual price is something Boeing hopes to negotiate lower,” Copeland said.
With so much in the hands of suppliers, he said, the pace of overall cost reduction is harder to predict from outside.
Bell projected that the cost to build each Dreamliner will drop below the price paid by the buyer around 2015, providing positive cash flow for the first time.
“That time frame is when we’ll start seeing it really get positive,” he said.
The positive cash flow will gradually pay back the earlier production costs to finally break even on manufacturing the planes roughly 10 years from now, Boeing said.
This calculation does not take into account the 787 research-and-development costs nor the costs of acquiring the 787 plants in South Carolina from struggling partners.
Those costs, estimated by The Seattle Times at around $16 billion, will have to paid back for Boeing to see a return on its total investment.
That will likely take at least an additional 700 deliveries beyond the initial 1,100 jets.
Even then, Boeing still won’t be in the clear.
Long before 2021, it will have spent billions more to develop at least two further variants of the jet, the 787-9 and 787-10.
Yet Wall Street analysts — taking the view of an investor considering whether to buy Boeing shares today — ignore that financial mess in the 7 rearview mirror and look strictly ahead.
From the 787’s program’s inception, “it’s probably not a positive investment return,” said Barclay’s Copeland. “That said, of the substantial costs that the program faced, the majority are sunk and behind the company. Looking forward from here, I think the prospect of it being a positive return on investment is very good.”
That perspective, and higher-than-expected quarterly earnings, sent Boeing stock shooting up by 4.5 percent, to end the day at $66.56.
Boeing said there is a total market for a Dreamliner-size airplane of about 5,000 jets. Airbus is challenging Boeing for that market with its A350.
However, with the A350 not due before 2013, and likely later, Boeing can hope to capture more than half of the market if the 787 performs well.
And yet, production stumbles were still evident Wednesday.
Boeing reduced the expected number of Dreamliner deliveries this year to between five and seven. In January, it had projected between 12 and 20 deliveries.
In addition, it said in a regulatory filing that the delivery of the second model of the Dreamliner, the 787-9, will be pushed back from late 2013 to early 2014.
(Likewise, the first delivery of the 747-8 Intercontinental, the passenger version of the new jumbo jet, has slipped from this year into the first quarter of 2012, “due to a delay in flight testing and the time required to incorporate all flight test-driven changes.”)
Two 787 deliveries have been completed. Both went to launch airline All Nippon Airways of Japan, which late Tuesday Seattle time flew the first 787 passenger flight, just over four hours from Tokyo to Hong Kong.
While Boeing’s future hangs upon how the 787 performs in service, the company also has its hands full with production of other airplanes.
Boeing plans to increase production in its factories by 43 percent over the next three years, promising boom times for local aerospace employment.
Having delivered the first 787 and 747-8, “our clear priority is on executing the ramp up in production across all our commercial-airplane programs,” McNerney said.
He added that the KC-46 tanker and the 737 MAX will also move to center stage.
The tanker will be built in Everett. Boeing hasn’t said where it will build the 737 MAX, though Renton is favored by the current 737 assembly line there.
Overall in the last quarter, Boeing earned just over $1 billion on revenue of nearly $18 billion. Earnings per share were $1.46, up 30 percent from a year ago.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org