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Boeing Gets a Big Win, But at What Cost?

Brooke Sutherland

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Boeing Co. just got a big vote of confidence, but it still has much to prove.

The commercial-jet maker on Tuesday announced a surprise order for its 737 Max jet – the first since the top-selling aircraft was involved in two fatal crashes that prompted regulators around the globe to ground it and sparked a full-blown crisis for the company. British Airways owner IAG SA signed a letter of intent for 200 of the planes at the Paris Air Show, with IAG CEO Willie Walsh saying he “would get on board a Max tomorrow.”

It was Boeing’s most significant win of the event and helps the aerospace giant  close the gap in its annual order showdown with arch-rival Airbus SE, which had racked up an impressive lead thanks to interest in the new longer-range version of its largest-single aisle jet. But this air show was always about more than orders for Boeing. Expectations for orders in general were low this year but expectations for Max orders were at zero. IAG’s willingness to back the Max gives Boeing’s reputation the credibility boost it so badly needed. The question is whether Boeing has done enough in terms of improving its transparency, communication and oversight issues to deserve that kind of endorsement.

The relative dearth of orders for Boeing jets in the wake of the Max crisis had been the strongest means yet of holding the company accountable. The Max order – as well as orders for the 787 Dreamliner from Air Lease Corp. and Korean Airlines Co., also inked on Tuesday – gets it out of the aviation industry’s version of timeout. That was always inevitable: Boeing and Airbus enjoy a relative duopoly in commercial aviation and airlines would be reluctant to tilt the market-share balance too much in Airbus’s favor. But that doesn’t create much incentive for Boeing to fundamentally change its ways.CEO Dennis Muilenburg has created a special board committee to review Boeing’s operations, and has apologized for not notifying regulators or airlines earlier that a warning light linked to the software system at the heart of the Max’s woes wasn’t functioning properly. While there are no immediate plans to do so, Boeing CFO Greg Smith told Bloomberg News’s Julie Johnsson that the company could be open to changing the name of the plane, based on customer and passenger input. But will real changes actually be made? Will it take another Max crisis for us to find out if they were?  

It may be that Boeing will pay the pay the price for its missteps one way or another. For all the fixation on the Max and the debate around how long it would take for passengers to feel comfortable flying on the plane, Boeing’s customers have remained resolute in their support for the jet and its underlying value. “All of the operators of the Max, I can tell you, everyone likes it,” AerCap Holdings NV CEO Aengus Kelly said in an interview last week. “The fuel burn has been very good. People realize that and are trying to take advantage of the situation.” A win is a win, but what did Boeing have to give up to secure this kind of support from IAG? The deal is valued at $24 billion before accounting for customary discounts. The carrier is well-respected and isn’t usually the type to shop based on price. Its CEO is a former 737 pilot. In some ways, that makes this deal mean even more. But speculation about whether this was a sweetheart deal is likely to swirl.

Boeing can now leave the Air Show with its head held a little higher, but its reputation won’t be rebuilt overnight.

To contact the author of this story: Brooke Sutherland at bsutherland7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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