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The price of Boeing's 787 sales success

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787-FAL-December2010-2_560.jpgInside:
- How the 787 backlog was built
- Predicable costs at 787's foundation
- Scott Carson's ascent
- Can the 787-9 undo the damage?
- Looking at 17 787's per month
- The revival of the 787-10
- Redrawing the supply chain lines

Read this article later: Complete PDF version

Data obtained by FlightBlogger show Boeing's historic order backlog for the 787 was based partly on steep discounts driven by now-discarded design and manufacturing assumptions. Cost overruns, penalty payments and supply chain changes adopted in the last two years will force Boeing to achieve unprecedented cost-savings for the widebody to turn a profit even after delivering the current 846-aircraft backlog.

With first delivery nearly three years behind schedule, the cost to build each 787 has skyrocketed from its original foundations built upon dramatically lower and more predictable production costs, say company insiders.

In the race to sign up customers between 2004 and 2006, airframe prices averaged just below $76 million, a price that does not include the the $20 to $30 million GENx or Rolls-Royce engines, buyer furnished equipment (BFE) and in-flight entertainment (IFE), according to pricing data.

While Boeing will never disclose the actual prices its mega-backlog of 787s were sold for, Jim Albaugh, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, believes the 787 was sold for far less than it was worth, as acknowledged in a recent interview: "I think we gave away some of the value of this airplane to a lot of our customers."

Though that statement, say customer and company sources, as well as industry analysts, is an understated acknowledgment that hints at how Boeing's 787 backlog was built; stimulated not only by huge future growth in air traffic and precipitously rising fuel prices, but a steady and strategic drop in the price of the aircraft.

Boeing, which did not comment on the actual pricing figures, says it is "constantly evaluating our value proposition in the marketplace. Prices are adjusted based on the value our products provide to our customers as well as our positioning in the competitive environment."

In late 2004, Boeing started employing aggressive sales tactics, according to sources familiar with the pricing discussions, blunting the ambitions of the original Airbus A350, then a significantly upgraded A330. That aggressiveness, led by then sales vice president Scott Carson, with a mandate from then-CEO Harry Stonecipher, then-Commercial Airplanes Chief Alan Mulally and the Boeing board of directors, saw prices slashed on the company's composite jetliner.

In the more than three and a half years since its first 787 began assembly, the prevailing wisdom about Boeing's woes have centered upon moving past manufacturing design issues, completing extensive rework of production airframes, certifying and delivering the first units for revenue service and building a steady industrial ramp up at its Everett and Charleston facilities; all while re-balancing its supply chain as it develops the 787-8's larger successor.

Although each is a formidable task, the pricing data indicates Boeing also must overcome five-year-old pricing decisions on more than 300 787s still in the backlog.

The 2004 through 2006 airframe prices charged to airline customers ranged between $83.5 million and as low as $65.7 million for the 787-8, for one higher volume deal with a blue chip customer. Prices for the larger 787-9 were cut significantly as well, but the sales balance in the early years of the program was weighted heavily toward the smaller -8.

There remains great risk and opportunity to ensure the 787 - the company's fastest selling jetliner - becomes the cash cow Boeing hopes it will become. Few doubt the market success of Boeing's flagship program, though the profitability and margins remain open questions as the recurring production costs, by the company's own admission, lack clarity.

Boeing declined a request for executives currently leading the program, as well as Carson, though the company did comment on a point-by-point basis.

Photo Credit Air Show Fan

Predictable costs at Dreamliner's heart

The steadily lowered price for the Dreamliner was supported by the barebones production costs forecast by program planners who saw a global supply chain with its contractual prices locked in, as well as design and manufacturing responsibility and cost weighted toward Boeing's suppliers.

The company's confidence in predicting its costs were derived from its own contractual agreements with suppliers on the cost of each shipset, and how much labor would be required on its own end once fully-stuffed structures arrived on the final assembly line in Everett. Boeing's supply chain model as formulated, say company insiders, allowed the estimate of its "snap together planes" to be built for an unprecedented low recurring cost which would be recognized early in the program as the production rate was set to hit 10 aircraft per month in 2010.

This cost assumption, built upon a $5 billion investment for the 787, say industry sources, compared to the $11.5 billion initially budgeted for the 777, allowed Boeing to compete aggressively to establish the Dreamliner in the marketplace, ultimately obliterating the earliest incarnations of the A350.

"If they win the order, who cares what the price is?" says Air Insight analyst Addison Schonland. "The price wasn't wrong, the cost was."

Boeing's CFO, James Bell says it will be another three to four years before Boeing can anticipate if it will approach the profitability of the 777 and 737, the company's most mature and highest rate programs.

"We would also have a real opportunity to see how the production system really works, because remember," says Bell, "this is a different production system than we used on building aluminum airplanes, and we anticipate that the learning curve on that we will be able to harvest sooner. But we won't know that until we start running them.

"But by 2013, 2014, we will know. We would expect those margins to start to approach some of the production programs you see today."

To ensure the poor pricing locked in on the first several hundred 787-8s don't significantly drop the company's quarterly reported profits, say many in the analyst community, Boeing is spreading out the poorly priced airframes over the delivery schedule in the decade to come, interspersed with better prices locked in with later customers. Shifting poorly priced units farther along Boeing's "skyline" also allows a drop in the cost to build each 787 as the production rate accelerates.

That acceleration, say factory sources, may extend well beyond today's 2013 goal to build 10 787s per month, with rises as high as 17 per month being investigated for mid-2016. That significant boost, beyond today's unprecedented target, which calls for the planned Everett surge line, which aims for operation by early 2012, to be made permanent.

Speaking generally of the planned rate increases, Albaugh says: "Clearly you work with your supply chain to take cost out, you work throughput, you have more airplanes coming through with the same amount of invested capital, drives your unit cost down and drives profitability."

Carson's Ascent

Scott Carson's ascent to the top spot of Boeing Commercial Airplanes was directly attributable to his performance as vice president of sales, having presided over growth in the 787 backlog that far exceeded any sales campaign the company had ever seen, while taking advantage of significant market demand for jetliners.

When he was first appointed vice president of sales for Boeing Commercial Airplanes in December 2004, replacing Toby Bright who was appointed shortly after 9/11 in January 2002, the 787 program had accumulated 52 orders, which included launch customers All Nippon Airways and Air New Zealand.

Upon his appointment, Stonecipher laid out Carson's objectives in plain terms: "Scott's appointment will strengthen and improve our global sales effectiveness and that's one of our highest priorities."

Carson faced not only a post-9/11 marketplace that had slowed the 787's market reception, but the company was reeling from high profile sales losses to Airbus including orders to Iberia, Air Berlin and easyJet. Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO and president Alan Mulally, who now serves as CEO of Ford, had declared the 7E7 would accumulate 200 orders by the end of 2004, a goal the company did not achieve, resulting in the reassignment of Bright.

During his tenure as vice president of sales, Carson, whose warm demeanor earned him respect inside the company and with customers, grew the 787 backlog by 330 airframes between his appointment in December 2004 and the naming of his successor in October 2006. In that period of less than two years, with a mandate from Mulally and Stonecipher, Carson racked up nearly three times as many orders for the 787 as the 777 did in the entire six-year period leading up to its 1995 entry into service.

Carson's unprecedented success had a lot working in his favor, say industry sources, including a tepid market reception to the A350 mark one, an aluminum lithium update to the A330-200 and -300 with GEnx engines. However, while Airbus struggled to find its footing on the A350, a fierce sales battle emerged that saw Airbus lowering its price to account for its modest E3.5B investment, while Boeing countered with further lowered prices and increased production forecasts to best the then 2010 entry into service planned for the A350, now slated for 2013.

Can a single aircraft type redeem a company?

With just over three years to go before the first 270 to 290-seat 787-9 is handed over to Air New Zealand at the end of 2013, a date set to slip, the balance of the massive 787 backlog remains heavily tilted toward the smaller 220 to 250-seat 787-8, with 77% of the 846-aircraft backlog earmarked for the first model.

That balance, says Albaugh, is set to shift.

"I think what you'll see is a mix that is probably weighted a little bit to the -9 side," he said in an August interview. "The -8 fills a great niche for certain routes, certain customers it's going to be the airplane of choice. It really just depends on their route structure people want to fly.

"I think when people see the value of the -9 you'll see a lot of people wanting that airplane, and we think that airplane is one we can sell for more than the -8 for sure."

Though for Boeing to fortify the program's profitability, the shift to the larger 787-9, said CEO Jim McNerney in a February investor Q&A, is the company's "the single biggest opportunity."

"If a customer comes to us and says instead of 25 787-8s," said McNerney, "We want 10 787-9s and 15 787-8s. Now that we see that you are going to deliver what you said on the 787-9, that is an opportunity for a discussion... they will be getting more value, we will be getting more price."

The push to regain pricing power on the 787-8, which aims to cut its fuel burn by 20% compared to today's 767, is evident in the aircraft's changing list price, which debuted in August 2005 on Boeing's website for $125 to $135 million. Boeing says that price was in reference to catalogue pricing messaged in the early launch days of the program in comparison to the 767-300ER.  

The price today, again boosted on December 14, places the 787-8 average catalogue price tag at $185.2 million, more than 40% higher than first envisaged. That increase is compared to an average 19-22% jump in the price of the 777 and 767 over the same period, respectively.

Additionally, the price of the 787-9 first appeared in May 2006 when Boeing displayed a $178.5 to $188 million and has risen today to average of $219.1 million.

"The difference in price increase is to adjust the pricing relationship between the 787-8 and 787-9 to better reflect their relative size and capability. The increase is also a reflection of value the 787-8 will provide to customers," says Boeing.

Customers ANA, Air China, Vietnam Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines have all converted a portion or all of their order to the larger -9. Major orders from Lufthansa and Air France/KLM remain outstanding, with the 787-9 believed to be Boeing's lead offering to each European mega carrier.

The sales success Boeing enjoyed on the 787 may be a doubled-edged sword said Albaugh: "The fact that we're virtually sold out to the end of the decade, we can't supply this airplane to some of our premium customers, and quite frankly I'd like to sell these airplanes for what they're worth."

The schedule for the 787-9 remains in great doubt, and program sources suggest the new program plan, expected before week's end, will have a bigger impact to the -9 than it does to the -8.

Engineering resources for the larger 787-9 had increased early in the year as 787-8 flight test progressed, returning data that was fed into the design of the new jet. Boeing had planned to move 80% of its 787 staff to the -9, says one program source, though in recent months, the engineering requirements of the 787-8 to resolve late design issues has virtually starved the 787-9 of its resources in some units, pulling back those engineers to the -8 on a full-time basis.

Additionally, Boeing confirms that it is "re-looking at the possibility" of the 787-10, a further stretch of the 787's fuselage to comfortably accommodate around 315-seats in three-classes. The 787-8 and -9 product development planners aim for those aircraft to be dominant on  long and thin Pacific routes, while the 787-10 would be intended for the thicker Atlantic and Pacific routes. The aircraft, as conceived today, would be a simple fuselage stretch of the -9 while offering a 6,500nm range, nullifying the performance of the Airbus A330-300.

The goal, says those same sources, is to offer a higher priced 787, while adding a comparatively low-cost investment that grows the backlog with prices based on the revised -9 industrial cost assumptions.

Boeing says discussions, both internally and with customers, "are all considered preliminary" and "no firm decisions about the airplane have been made. We discuss it from time to time with whomever is interested" and would "depend on market requirements."

Redrawing the lines

With enormous costs sunk into the program to rehabilitate its supply chain, as well as to rework, repair, reinforce and mature parts of the aircraft's design, Boeing hopes to use the 787-9 as a "do-over", says a company source, first getting manufacturing oversight of the design and global supply chain, incorporating the lessons accumulated with the early manufacturing tranche of 787-8s.

The stretched 787-9 is first and foremost an opportunity to apply the hard-earned technical lessons learned on the 787-8. From a design perspective, that reflects Boeing's ambition to incorporate widespread design changes to lighten and optimize the airframe and further refine the aircraft's systems.

From a manufacturing standpoint, the institutional knowledge earned by working with the 787-8 since 2007, aims to give Boeing a smoother ramp up in the 787-9's production with a leaner assembly process and an even more experienced workforce.

From a supplier management standpoint, realigning the 787-9 supply base enables opportunities for renegotiation of the contracts on which the 787-8 were first based, while also - in some cases - bringing work in house.

Boeing completed acquisitions of Vought and Alenia's Charleston facilities by December 2009, where aft fuselage fabrication and center fuselage integration takes place. Additionally, the airframer completed a more recent acquisition of Summit Aeronautic group, which makes the 787's door edge frames. Supplier sources say the company's share of the work is set to grow again.

For example, for its troubled Alenia Aeronautica-built horizontal stabilizer, Boeing is looking to insource the 787-9's stabilizer to incorporate the architectural and aerodynamic design changes while being in direct cost control of its fabrication and assembly, say program sources.

One year after Mike Carriker and Randy Neville took the 787-8 on its maiden three-hour flight into the overcast, rainy skies of Puget Sound, kicking off what appeared to be a near flawless flight test campaign, Boeing's 787 program finds itself at a near standstill.

The fleet, grounded by federal regulators, is limited to ground testing after the November 9 fire aboard ZA002. The global production system again awaiting word on how and when to proceed, its top US supplier moving the majority of staff to other programs, Everett unable to accommodate new airframes.

Boeing's management, its customers and financial stakeholders, watch with keen interest to see if the airframer can guide itself out of the near term challenges to certify and deliver the 787, but also avoid its previous missteps as it develops the 787-9 and -10 and undo some of the damage the 787-8 could inflict on the company's bottom line.

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