Pontifications: A contrarian view of Stock Buybacks

By the Leeham News Team

April 25, 2023, © Leeham News: Airbus and Boeing last week held their annual shareholders’ meetings. Boeing continues to suspend dividends and stock buybacks as it struggles to recover from the grounding of the 737 MAX and delivery suspensions of the 767/KC-46A, 787, and 737 (again); and the years-delayed certification of the 777X. Losses and charges at its defense unit mount as well, hurting profits and cash flow.

Before the MAX grounding in March 2019, Boeing spent more than $60bn in stock buybacks since the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. “Shareholder value” became a priority—and dirty words to those who long for the days of a Boeing based on engineering excellence vs focus on Wall Street and the stock price.

Airbus has taken over the lead in airplane engineering and innovation. Boeing in November deemphasized new product development and pointed to its guidance of $10bn in free cash flow by 2025. However, Airbus now puts shareholder value as an important business goal. At its annual meeting, Airbus continues its dividend and stock buyback programs. But Airbus buybacks and dividends are a fraction of what Boeing has spent and Airbus committed to a €10bn war chest for future contingencies.

Stock buybacks remain a target of criticism. While our view of over-emphasis on shareholder value is well known—we favor a balance on free cash flow expenditures between shareholder value and new product development—there is another side to stock buybacks that haven’t been discussed.

Leeham News is going to take a step back and dig into the details of the buybacks, analyzing the numbers behind the repurchase program, its results, and possibilities for the future.

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Pontifications: Skyline backlog suggests higher production rate than Boeing targets for 777X

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By Scott Hamilton

By Scott Hamilton

April 17, 2023, © Leeham News: Boeing’s skyline for the 777X, reported by Cirium, suggests there will be a need to boost production higher than the company’s target of 4/mo by 2025/2026. The delivery stream data is good news for Boeing, which doesn’t detail this information. Boeing took a billion-plus dollar write-off on the program, which has been marred by delays, engine issues, and certification questions.

Boosting the production rate beyond 4/mo will be an important contributor to Boeing’s financial recovery in the second half of this decade. At its peak, Boeing produced 8.3 777s a month, or 100 a year.

The current production rate of the program is two per month, for the 777-200LRF. Boeing’s website says the combined rate for the 777 Classic and the 777X is three per month. But a year ago, Boeing said it was suspending production of the X through 2023. Corporate communications would not comment on the contradiction, citing the quiet period before the 1Q earnings call on April 26.

Air India’s order for 10 Boeing 777Xs in February (among more than 200 other Boeing aircraft) is welcome news for the slow-selling airliner.

The airline’s orders haven’t been listed yet in Boeing’s running tally of orders, meaning the firm contract hasn’t been signed.

  • Data shows deliveries of 777-200LRF drops dramatically in 2025.
  • Production rate goal of 4/mo by 2025/26.
  • Backlog shows demand for higher production rate.

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Pontifications: Airbus grows in China while Boeing remains on the sidelines

By Scott Hamilton

April 11, 2023, © Leeham News: Airbus last week firmed up an order for 150 A320neos and 10 A350-900s with China. The deal was announced last year.

Additionally, Airbus and the Chinese government agreed to add to the A320 family assembly site in Tianjin, increasing the capacity of the plant. This will be another step in Airbus’ goal to achieve a production rate of 75 per month by 2026 for the A320 family.

And that’s not all. Airbus and the China National Aviation Fuel Group (CNAF) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to increase the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

Meanwhile, Boeing remains essentially frozen out of China. Deliveries of the 737 MAX remain stalled. Although China Southern Airlines outlined expected deliveries this year and through the next few years, we’ve seen this sort of thing before. Until an official announcement comes from Beijing authorizing deliveries, or some of the stored airplanes are delivered, words are just words.

That said, there are some solid indications we’re seeing that Boeing deliveries to China may well resume in the not-too-distant future, but on a glacial pace. The financial viability of some airlines within China, while opaque to outsiders, is monitored by the CAAC, China’s regulator. Some airlines are deemed too financially risky now to accept delivery of any new aircraft, whether the OEM is Boeing or Airbus.

While Boeing’s 140 MAXes originally ordered by China remained in a Twilight Zone of sorts, delivery of some Airbus A320neos also has been blocked. Generally, though, Airbus continues to tender airplanes and win orders while Boeing sits on the sidelines.

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Pontifications: New GAO report shows how aviation industry repeatedly failed to meet eco-aviation goals

By Scott Hamilton

April 4, 2023, © Leeham News: A new study by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) makes clear how the US airline industry effort has been anemic in reducing emissions over the last 20 years.

In fact, despite all the rhetoric and genuine efforts in certain elements of commercial aviation, it might be fair to say that the airline industry’s effort overall has been pathetic.

Despite all the fanfare in 2021 when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) adopted a resolution with goals to decarbonize, that resolution was little more than regurgitating previous, similar goals. The same goes for the goals adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) shortly after IATA.

I’ll explain below. Suffice it to say that when Tim Clark, the president of Emirates Airline, told the 2021 IATA conference, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he wasn’t whistling past the graveyard.

The GAO report, Sustainable Aviation Fuel, is an unintentional indictment of just how pathetic commercial aviation has been in setting and failing to meet goal after goal, after goal.

Despite tripling the production in 2022 of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) compared with 2021, use by US airlines barely moved the needle. Even though airline use also tripled, SAF still represented marginally less than 0.1% of aviation fuel.

A goal set in 2007 called for 10% of fuel used would be SAF by 2017.

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Pontifications: Technical challenges for UAMs, et al, only part of the problems

By Scott Hamilton

March 28, 2023, © Leeham News: Technical challenges for alternative energy aircraft are daunting. Urban Air Mobility, Advanced Air Mobility, eVTOLs, batteries, hydrogen, hybrids—this list goes on.

Advances are reaching a point where some of the concepts in development will be ready for service within a few years. As LNA’s Bjorn Fehrm has written about these various ideas, there remain questions over the feasibility and commercial viability, but I’m not going to repeat these here.

Rather, there are other areas to consider. LNA has touched on the issues of Air Traffic Management (ATM) and pilot needs. The latter applies to on-board or remote piloting. If there is a big pilot shortage in the airline industry (and there are biased rebuttals to the contrary), where are pilots for thousands of  UAMs, eVTOLs, small airplanes, etc., going to be found?

Certainly, pilots for these aircraft don’t need the minimum 1,500 hours mandated to be an airline pilot. But manpower is manpower and if you don’t have the people, the number of hours required doesn’t matter. I can’t say I’d be too keen on being transported by a pilot, either in the vehicle or at some joystick somewhere, who is running around like the Jetsons.

Automation in lieu of pilots presents a whole new arena of questions. Yes, automation is used in the military already, as are remotely piloted drones. Boeing CEO David Calhoun thinks automation is in the future of commercial aviation sooner than later.

But there are more issues to consider than these: Production, product support, and the supply chain are hardly inconsequential issues.

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Pontifications: Complacency, arrogance aren’t a Boeing exclusive

By Scott Hamilton

March 21, 2023, © Leeham News: Airbus is resting on its laurels while Boeing struggles to recover from one crisis after another since the March 2019 grounding of the global 737 MAX fleet.

Multiple sources tell me that Airbus, aside from the production problems it has in common with Boeing, is enjoying Boeing’s deep freeze by China. The decision by Boeing CEO David Calhoun to delay the “introduction” of a new airplane until the middle of the next decade took the pressure off Airbus to be ready to move sooner than later.

While Boeing struggles, Airbus has become conservative, complacent and—gasp—even arrogant, a longtime Boeing trait.

What’s happening?

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Pontifications: One step forward, two steps back for Boeing

By Scott Hamilton

March 14, 2023, © Leeham News: There is a phrase in the US about the politician’s dance: one step forward, two steps back and a sidestep.

I couldn’t help but this about this dance step in connection with Boeing in recent weeks. For every step forward, Boeing seems to take two steps back.

The delivery suspension of the 767/KC-46A line—none has been delivered since the first of the year—was the first step back.

Then, for a second time, deliveries of the 787 were suspended. While the 767/KC-46A deliveries remain “paused,” to use Boeing’s favorite word, the Federal Aviation Administration last Friday cleared Boeing to resume deliveries of the 787.

I recall that Boeing CFO Brian West recently said a month ago that there will be some bumps ahead on the way to Boeing’s recovery. He didn’t allude to the 767/KC-46 issue at the time and the 787 was being delivered then. But as these issues emerged, Boeing once more seems snake bit.

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Pontifications: 30-40 MAXes potentially delayed by software issue: Jefferies

By Scott Hamilton

March 7, 2023, © Leeham News: About 30-40 Boeing 737 MAXes potentially will be delivery-delayed by the Option Section Software reconfiguration issue, the investment bank Jefferies Co. reported yesterday. Jefferies followed up on our report published Monday by Airfinance Journal and LNA.

Boeing didn’t much like our story about the new software issue delaying some deliveries of the 737 MAX. The story was joint reporting by AFJ and LNA.

“This has no impact on our [2023] delivery outlook,” a corporate communications representative emailed yesterday, specifically putting this on the record. The statement addresses a point the story didn’t raise.

“Today’s Leeham News article looks misleading in that the software issue it describes as ‘new’ has been known for over a year and isn’t expected to cause incremental delays in 737 MAX or 787 deliveries,” wrote the aerospace analyst at TD Cowen Co. “BA indicates this issue has been known for well over a year, isn’t new, was well understood at the time of their investor day and won’t cause any incremental impact to BA’s projected deliveries.”

AFJ/LNA was told by customers that the issue was discovered last Autumn, which is what we reported. One of the questions posted to Boeing included the Autumn timing. Boeing did not react to the timing outlined.

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Pontifications: Visiting AvGeek heaven

By Scott Hamilton

Feb. 28, 2023, © Leeham News: When Boeing began selling off real estate in the greater Seattle area to reduce costs during the 737 MAX grounding and the COVID pandemic, some sacred cows were among the sales.

All the buildings located in Renton on a former horse racing track known as Longacres were sold. The symbolism was painful. These buildings were the headquarters for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Some buildings where composites were made and research was located were sold.

Buried in the downsizing disposing of the building in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb, that was the long-time home of Boeing’s archives. Documents. Engineering plans. Photos. Film and movies. Records of just about everything you can think of and lots you probably can’t.

And models. Rows and rows and rows of models. Models of every Boeing airplane ever sold. Models of concept airplanes, some really weird.

Boeing archivist Michael Lombardi holds a model of an Avenger Army truck Boeing built during a period of diversification. Credit: Leeham News.

Then there are models and records of things probably 99% of the people who follow Boeing didn’t know Boeing ever did. Boeing built and delivered mass transit rail cars. Military ground vehicles. Small naval vessels. Small passenger ferries.

Where was all this history going to go with the closure of the Bellevue location?

All the records, models, photography, etc., moved to a new and larger location at Boeing’s industrial and design complex in Auburn, a Tacoma suburb. The move was completed in January. I had the opportunity to visit this facility last week.

It is an AvGeek’s heaven.

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Pontifications: Bumps ahead notwithstanding, Boeing sees steady recovery

By Scott Hamilton

Feb. 21, 2023, © Leeham News: Boeing will have some bumps in the road (or maybe I should say, some turbulence) now and then, but its chief financial officer is confident the company is solidly on its way to recovery.

Recovery is daunting. There’s $51bn in total debt (more than $34.5bn in net debt), with $5.2bn coming due this year. Production of the 737 and 787 remains erratic. Deliveries are slower than hoped. Certification of the 737-7 and 737-10 has yet to be achieved. Program progress on the 777X is slow. A host of defense programs are in money-losing positions.

But orders picked up nicely for the 737 and 787. Even the 777X won 10 orders, from Air India, after a long, long drought. Debt, huge though it is, is coming down. Revenues are up at Commercial Airplanes and Global Services, though down at Defense.

Brian West, the CFO, outlined Boeing’s outlook during an appearance at a Cowen Co. investors conference last week. There was little new since Boeing held its own investors’ day on Nov. 2 and the 2022 earnings call on Jan. 26. But there are always a few nuggets to come out of these appearances.

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