Boeing Co. (BA-N) took a US$6.5-billion charge on its new 777X jet and posted a record annual loss on Wednesday, as the cost of tighter regulation in the wake of two 737 Max crashes caught up with its next flagship development.
The huge charge, on top of an industrywide recession resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, caps a tumultuous year for the world’s largest aerospace company that saw it slash production, shed thousands of jobs and battle to restore its reputation.
Boeing said it now expects the 777X, a larger version of the 777, to enter service by late 2023, a year later than its previous estimate, with a longer and costlier certification process after scrutiny over the 737 Max.
Boeing is making “prudent design modifications” to the 777X, including hardware changes to control electronics, in response to regulator expectations, Boeing chief executive officer Dave Calhoun told analysts.
“2020 was a historically challenging year for our world,” he said.
Boeing shares were down 3 per cent against a slightly lower Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Mr. Calhoun said Boeing has sufficient liquidity to manage the downturn, but sounded a note of caution on the smoothness of vaccine distribution and an early summer rebound in air travel.
The historic slump in air travel and expanded inspections over production defects has halted deliveries of about 80 787s to airlines so far, cutting off a key source of cash and raising the prospect of a reach-forward loss as Boeing works to clear an inventory of roughly 450 737 Max jets.
Boeing said it expects to resume handing over 787s to customers later this quarter, with none in January and few in February, although analysts say deliveries are not expected to recover to 2019 levels until at least 2024.
The company reaffirmed plans to hit a sharply reduced production rate of 5 787s a month in March, when it will consolidate production at its South Carolina factory, a decision first reported by Reuters.
Boeing, which has delivered about 40 737 Maxs from its stored inventory, is also sticking with plans to reach a production rate of 31 737 jets a month by the beginning of 2022, although at least one analyst expects that to slip to early 2023.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) lifted its own 22-month 737 Max flight ban on Wednesday, as did Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), after a move by U.S. counterparts in November and Brazil and Canada.
China, which was first to ban the plane after the second crash in March, 2019, and which represents a quarter of Max sales, has not said when it will act.
Even so, Boeing said Wednesday it expects to win remaining 737 Max regulatory approvals in the first half of 2021.
Demand from China has also been curbed by years of trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, although industry sources have expressed cautious hope for a revived deal now U.S. President Joe Biden has taken office, following a pattern of government-brokered Chinese jet orders coinciding with transfers of power or diplomatic resets.
Calhoun earlier told CNBC he was “optimistic” about new big plane orders from China, although industry sources have cautioned demand remains thin despite Chinese traffic rebounding more quickly than elsewhere.
Boeing unveiled US$8.3-billion in operating charges on Wednesday, including a US$468-million charge for abnormal 737 production costs, US$275-million over KC-46 aerial refueling tanker production issues, and US$744-million linked to its 737 Max settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a fraud conspiracy charge.
The company’s net loss rose to US$8.44-billion in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, from US$1.01-billion a year earlier, taking its full-year loss to a record US$11.94-billion.
Revenue fell 15 per cent to US$15.3-billion in the quarter.
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