Odds and Ends: MH370 tracking; Garuda rules out A380, 747-8; last 747-400 flight; E-Jet vs Turbo-props

MH370 tracking: With Britain’s Immarsat and the Air Accident Investigation Board key to determining the general location of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, The London Telegraph has one of the best narratives of of the behind-the-scenes story of how this came about. The London Independent also has a good story. And here is a story that explains the difficulties of searching in remote oceans.

  • Update, 10:30am PDT: Aviation analyst and former pilot John Nance is profiled in this Puget Sound Business Journal account that includes’ Nance’s theory of MH370. It’s an intriguing theory. He believes this was a deliberate act–either terrorism or murder-suicide–and that once the flight settled out southbound from Malaysia, it was set on auto-pilot and all aboard, including the pilot, were killed by asphyxiation. The airplane flew until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean; he even gives a speed and angle-of-attack estimate.

Garuda rules out A380, 747-8: The Australian reports that after planning to order either the Airbus A380 or Boeing 747-8 last year, officials have ruled this out.

Last 747-400 flight: Japan’s All Nippon Airlines plans to complete its last Boeing 747-400 flight this month, ending an iconic era in the country where 747s once ruled the skies.

E-Jet vs Turbo-Props: At the ISTAT conference last week, we reported that Embraer says its E-175 E2 is more efficient than similarly sized turbo props on missions of more than 250 miles. This story in The Economic Times of India follows through on this theme.

Embraer facing slack years: JP Morgan

Update: Even as we posted this, Jon Ostrower Tweeted PW has been selected to re-engine the E-Jet. We’re trying to confirm.

Embraer faces declining deliveries this year and next due to declining orders and a declining backlog, reports JP Morgan in a research note issued January 8.

JP Morgan writes:

We are downgrading Embraer…because we believe the stock does not fully account for a decline in commercial deliveries. We are lowering our 2014 E-Jet delivery estimate to 60 from 80, and we see potential for both upside and downside to this estimate.

  • We forecast 85 E-Jet deliveries in 2013 and 60 in 2014, down from 105 in 2012. Our 2013 outlook is based on our view that the company has filled ~75 slots this year, reinforced by indications from management, and the trickle of orders since then. Visibility into 2014 volume is much lower. We estimate that only 21 slots are filled (using data from Ascend), and even if we allow for some reshuffling from other years, Embraer still has a decent number of orders to gather just to reach our estimate. Embraer has taken ~306 E-Jet orders the past five years, or 61/year on average, and our delivery estimates for 2014 and beyond are in line with this.
  • E-Jet backlog was likely down to ~162 aircraft at year end. This represents only 1.5x 2012 deliveries vs an average of 3.2x historically. The backlog is only 1.9x our 2013 delivery estimate of 85 E-Jets, indicating that without an order pickup, the lower rates we are assuming will not be sustainable. The estimated E-Jet backlog in units is down ~65% from its 1Q08 peak of 466 and has declined in 15 of the 19 subsequent quarters.
  • Opportunities still lie in the US. Embraer does have opportunities to rebuild the backlog, the most prominent of which are in the US. Last year, management indicated it would compete for 300-500 US replacement orders in the coming years. Embraer failed to capture the first of these as Delta ordered from Bombardier, but there are other opportunities, such as a potential order from American for up to 200 76-seaters. This order could take place in the coming months if American exits bankruptcy independently, but a merger with US Airways (as our airline analyst Jamie Baker believes is likely) could push this out to 2014. We expect a resolution on the merger question in the coming weeks. Either way, Bombardier will surely provide stiff competition, and we see it as at least a mild favorite. Embraer has also pegged a ~150 aircraft opportunity from United. Large US orders would clearly benefit Embraer but even with 20-30 deliveries into the US annually, production should remain below last year’s 100+.

Our take:

We think EMB has seen a drop in orders because, at the end of 2011, officials announced they will re-engine the E-Jet. But throughout 2012, the market has waited for information about what the E-Jet RE will look like. The engine hasn’t been selected yet, as far as we know. A new wing is assumed, as are upgrades to the systems–which we hear will be borrowed from the KC-390 military aircraft.

As a result of the ambiguity, we think customers have been holding off ordering aircraft.

Furthermore, Bombardier has won some key competitions: Garuda and Delta Air Lines, where the CRJ proved to have lower operating costs and pricing considerations also favored BBD. The E-Jet is superior in passenger comfort to the CRJ, but for cost-driven airlines who don’t really care about passenger comfort, the lower operating costs of the CRJ may prove the winning combination with a more aggressive pricing and deal from BBD.

Embraer needs to make its RE decisions soon to regain momentum.