It was a hell of a year at Boeing: the Covid pandemic and issues related to the strength of the 787 fuselage added to the grounding of the 737 MAX, causing a plunge in the number of commercial aircraft delivered in 2020. The Fourth Quarter report released today by the Chicago-based manufacturer may even inspire some kind of optimism, considering that 59 out of 157 aircraft (or 40% of the total) have been delivered in the final three months of the year. But that number, 157, is the lowest registered at the end of a year by Boeing since 1977. And it evidences two opposite trends: on the positive side, it’s the effect of the resumption in MAX deliveries, while on the negative side it reflects the troubles regarding the 787 program.
THE MAX EXITS THE LIMBO
After almost two years of grounding and deliveries near to zero, the green light received from the Federal Aviation Administration in November gave new life to the MAX program. All major US carriers resumed services with the type, and deliveries restarted: a total of 31 aircraft have been handed over by Boeing to customers during the year 4Q, almost all of them in December. That counts for half of the Quarter total deliveries, which include three 747s, ten 767s, eleven 777s and four 787s (2020 figures by aircraft type are as follows; 43 737s, 5 747s, 30 767s, 26 777s, 53 787s).
THE DREAMLINER’S FLAWS
Though, while the MAX resurged from limbo, Boeing discovered that some areas of the 787 circumferential fuselage may not meet specified skin flatness tolerances. The flaw can create gaps that could potentially weaken the structure of the fuselage. While analysis shows the aircraft structure is still strong enough even with this defect to carry the maximum load the plane is expected to encounter in service, for full compliance with regulations, airliners have to meet a higher standard of 1.5 times that load. Reviews are underway at Boeing’s aft and mid-fuselage plant in North Charleston, S.C., at the Spirit AeroSystems forward fuselage plant in Wichita, Kan., and at plants owned by Leonardo in Italy and Kawasaki in Japan that produce smaller fuselage sections. As a result, deliveries of the Dreamliner almost came to a halt, with just four airframes handed to clients in the last three months of 2020.
A trend which is reasonable to expect for the initial months of the current year. As reported by cnbc.com, Boeing’s CFO Greg Smith said last month that Boeing would further trim production of the Dreamliner to five a month from six. Before the pandemic Boeing had planned to ramp up production of the planes to as many as 14 a month.
“The resumption of 737 MAX deliveries in December was a key milestone as we strengthen safety and quality across our enterprise. We also continued comprehensive inspections of our 787 airplanes to ensure they meet our highest quality standards prior to delivery. While limiting our 787 deliveries for the quarter, these comprehensive inspections represent our focus on safety, quality and transparency, and we’re confident that we’re taking the right steps for our customers and for the long-term health of the 787 program” said Smith, commenting on the 4Q report.
TOTAL ORDERS DOWN TO ALL-TIME LOW
CNBC also revealed that the Chicago-based manufacturer logged gross orders for 184 aircraft in 2020 (down from 246 in 2019 and 1,090 in 2018), including more than 80 737 MAX in December, and that customers cancelled orders for more than 650 planes last year. Boeing removed more than 1,000 planes from its backlog, taking into account orders it didn’t think would be fulfilled. That marked the worst year for net orders on record for the company, according to data from Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm.
Airbus, Boeing’s major competitor considering commercial aircraft, delivered 566 aircraft in 2020, amassed 383 new orders, including 268 net orders, and recorded 115 cancellations. (Header photo Wikimedia Commons / Jetstar Airways)