Boeing Co. posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings Wednesday on the strength of still-booming commercial airplane sales and improved productivity, easing investor concerns for now about the possibility of another setback for its thrice-delayed 787 Dreamliner.

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Boeing Co. posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings Wednesday on the strength of still-booming commercial airplane sales and improved productivity, easing investor concerns for now about the possibility of another setback for its thrice-delayed 787 Dreamliner.

The No. 2 commercial jet maker maintained the status quo on the much-awaited 787, affirming the revised schedule it announced Jan. 16 month which calls for the plane’s first flight in June and first customer delivery in early 2009 but providing no more specifics.

What it delivered instead was evidence of strong momentum in the commercial airplane business and optimism that the surge of orders will continue, regardless of a potential U.S. recession that could hurt its domestic airline customers.

The company’s 4 percent profit rise and prediction of “strong” earnings growth next year satisfied Wall Street despite a slight reduction in its estimates for 2008 revenue and airplane deliveries due to the 787 glitches. Boeing shares climbed $1.91, or 2.4 percent, to close at $82.87, having slid about 23 percent since early October.

“It was a strong quarter,” said JSA Research analyst Paul Nisbet. “They’ve been just knocking the cover off the ball as far as orders, with 520 for the quarter, and with a (companywide) backlog of $327 billion. Those are just unheard-of numbers.”

But Boeing’s fortunes will largely rise or fall on the success of the 787, the world’s first large commercial airplane made mostly of carbon-fiber composites. That program’s status won’t be clear until after the company succeeds in “powering up” or turning on the first aircraft and its 92 electronic systems, an event now expected in April.

Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Myles Walton said the absence of a 787 production forecast Wednesday “does nothing to help alleviate the overhang currently hanging over the stock like a gloomy cloud.”

Boeing said it continues to address problems in assembling the first 787s, consisting of its suppliers’ failure to complete parts on time and slow progress on the assembly line.

Despite those problems and the threat of a U.S. recession that could hurt its airline customers, CEO Jim McNerney was bullish about Boeing’s near-term future and noted that U.S. carriers account for only 11 percent of its airplane backlog.

“Notwithstanding some recent events and market volatility, we continue to forecast an extended commercial aerospace cycle driven by strong economic growth and solid traffic demand in much of the world,” he said on a conference call. “Even if we encounter a more significant economic downturn in the future, I believe the industry is better positioned than in past cycles and Boeing is even better positioned within the industry to weather any storms.”

Boeing’s net income for the last three months of 2007 was $1.03 billion, or $1.36 per share, up from $989 million, or $1.29 per share, in the fourth quarter of 2006. That was 4 cents per share better than the consensus estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Financial.

Revenue was virtually unchanged at $17.5 billion.

The company increased its guidance for 2008 earnings per share to between $5.70 and $5.85 from an earlier range of $5.55 to $5.75, still short of the Wall Street consensus estimate of $5.95. It also lowered its estimate of 2008 revenue by $500 million, to a range of $67 billion to $68 billion, due to the 787 delay.

Boeing’s continued resurgence was led by its Seattle-based commercial airplane manufacturing business, where operating earnings increased 46 percent to $973 million and revenue jumped 17 percent to $8.9 billion. Deliveries rose 9 percent to 112 and the record backlog grew 46 percent to $255 billion, reflecting strong demand for the 787 and other planes.

The Chicago-based company closed the gap on Airbus in aircraft deliveries but still ended the year trailing its European rival for a fifth straight year, 453 to 441, while outpacing it in orders. It scaled back its estimate of 2008 deliveries by about five airplanes to between 475 and 480 to reflect the rescheduling of initial 787 deliveries into 2009.

The St. Louis-based defense and space business saw earnings from operations decline 5 percent to $978 million and revenue fall 14 percent to $8.6 billion. The revenue drop was largely because results from a year earlier included two months of revenue from its Delta IV family of rockets, now part of the United Launch Alliance joint venture with Lockheed Martin Corp.

Full-year earnings were $4.1 billion, or $5.28 per share, up 84 percent from $2.2 billion, or $2.85 per share, in 2006. Revenue climbed 8 percent to $66.4 billion, with the commercial airplane business overtaking the defense unit in providing 50.3 percent of the total.

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