Clouds of worry have been gathering over the commercial aviation industry, but the sun was shining in Paris this week as planemakers and suppliers gathered for the biennial Air Show.
I mean that both literally — it was hot — and figuratively, with every executive I talked to adopting the same tone of cautious optimism. They conceded the market is slowing: Amid sputtering air traffic growth, weakening airline profits, and a slowing global economy, orders at the Paris Air Show trailed the tally from last year’s Farnborough Air Show on both a unit and dollar basis, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Intelligence’s George Ferguson and Francois Duflot. And the orders that were announced weren’t always written in stone. Vertical Research Partners analyst Rob Stallard counted about 610 commitments for new planes between Boeing Co. and Airbus SE (short of his forecast for 800), but only about 160 of those are firm orders for large aircraft and all of those belong to Airbus.(1)
Some orders for Airbus’s new A321XLR — a longer-range version of its top-selling narrow-body jet that was unveiled as expected this week — were converted from existing commitments for previous A320-family models. But there were orders, including a surprise bid from British Airways parent IAG SA for Boeing’s embattled 737 Max jets (more on that later). While everyone no doubt would have preferred a stronger showing, no one was panicking, either.
Global growth in demand for commercial aviation is likely to slow to a pace of about 5 percent this year from around 7.5 percent to 8 percent in the past few years, according to the International Air Transport Association. “That’s still a pretty good place to be — look at what many other industries are doing,” Tony Wood, CEO of aircraft braking and fire-protection equipment maker Meggitt Plc, said in an interview. “It’s certainly quicker than the world is growing.”
Tim Mahoney, CEO of Honeywell International Inc.’s aerospace unit, pointed out that airlines are filling the capacity they lost when two fatal crashes prompted a global grounding of Boeing’s Max through leases and older aircraft that are staying in service longer than planned. Jet Airways India Ltd. suspended operations in April after running out of cash and is heading to bankruptcy court, but some of its fleet has already been reallocated, Mahoney said. “It’s a validation that the demand from the flying public is there and it continues to grow,” he said. Boeing, meanwhile, now expects the commercial aviation market to need 44,040 new jets and $9.1 trillion of services over the next 20 years. That compares with last year’s prediction of 42,730 jets and $8.8 trillion of services.
So, Boeing and Airbus’s backlogs are likely safe in their robustness for the time being. But as I said going into the show, the question is whether they’ve already saturated the market and whether those backlogs will continue to grow. Executives from CFM International, the engine joint venture between General Electric Co. and Safran SA, weren’t super enthusiastic about production rate increases for Airbus’s A320 family.
It’s not clear that the supply chain is capable of handling a more aggressive pace, particularly the forging and casting companies, which have been the primary source of delays over the past few years. At a media briefing on Saturday, CFM executives said they also want to be sure any production rate increase is sustainable and will serve the market over the long-term — not just at its peak. The relative dearth of orders at this year’s Air Show would seem to support their cautious stance.
ALL’S FAIR IN LOVE AND THE MAX
Boeing’s Air Show order tally fell about $10 billion short of Airbus’s haul, but IAG’s commitment to buy 200 Max jets means more for the company than the final total. IAG CEO Willie Walsh, a former 737 pilot, said he would feel comfortable boarding a Max tomorrow. He can’t actually do that because the planes remain grounded globally, but it was a huge vote of confidence when Boeing needed one desperately. That kind of endorsement most likely didn’t come cheap: the list price for the planes IAG intends to buy is $24 billion, but the true price is likely much lower after adjusting for standard discounts and probably a few extra incentives.
It’s not a done deal just yet. IAG only signed a letter of intent, which gives it an out in case the Max runs into more problems or if Airbus comes up with a better offer. Airbus sales chief Christian Scherer said his company was never invited to bid on the deal but would very much like to. Either way, IAG’s willingness to back the Max gets Boeing out of the aviation industry’s version of timeout. This was always inevitable. Customers have been resolute in their confidence that Boeing will make the fuel-efficient Max safe to fly again.
IAG had previously relied largely on Airbus models for its shorter hauls, so the fact that it’s the one stepping up with a Max order is a testament to airlines’ desire to maintain competition between the two companies. But I do wonder whether that kind of dynamic properly incentivizes Boeing to address the transparency, communication and oversight issues that allowed the Max’s shortcomings to morph into a full-blown crisis.
Meanwhile, a good chunk of Airbus’s orders were for the freshly rolled-out XLR, with American Airlines Group Inc. agreeing to buy 20 of the planes and convert existing orders into 30 more. Boeing’s sales chief Ihssane Mounir said in a closing press conference that the XLR addressed only a “sliver” of the middle market and that there’s still an untapped opportunity for a rival offering it’s contemplating.
That was backed up by comments from the CEOs of JetBlue Airways Corp. (which ordered 13 XLRs) and Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA (which is thinking about buying the Airbus jet), with both advocating for the range advantages of a possible Boeing new middle-market aircraft. But while Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said there was no plan to accelerate the development of a successor to the 737 model, the Max crisis and advances in manufacturing and engine technology may force it to give that kind of project precedence over a middle-market jet.
For all the optimism about continuing growth, I thought it was interesting that Raytheon Co.’s CEO Tom Kennedy and CFO Toby O’Brien chose to cast their company’s merger with United Technologies Corp. as a bet on the long-term value of resiliency. Eventually, the booming growth the aerospace and defense sector have enjoyed simultaneously the past few years is going to come to an end; it’s rare that the two sectors move in tandem. Revenue for the combined United Technologies-Raytheon will split nearly equally between commercial and defense products and between domestic and international markets.
“We didn’t have to do this,” O’Brien said. But the combination “makes for a really resilient company through all cycles. If you’re in it for the long haul, why wouldn’t you want that?” Kennedy said he’s not concerned about a slowdown in defense spending in the near-term, given governments’ continuing concerns about geopolitical turmoil. He pointed to backing from both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate for more increases in the Defense Department’s budget for research, development, test and evaluation. The deal with United Technologies will help Raytheon compete more aggressively for the next generation of military franchises by giving it new technological capabilities, Kennedy and O’Brien said.
The potential for advancements in compact, high-energy power generation, thermal management and hypersonics is intriguing, and the combined company’s $8 billion annual R&D budget will give it an exorbitant amount of money to play with. But revenue synergies are notoriously more fungible than cold hard cost cuts. So the companies’ willingness to share about half of the $1 billion-plus in annual cost savings they’re targeting with the U.S. government may prove the bigger competitive advantage.
The synergies number struck analysts as quite low at only about 1 percent of the combined company’s $74 billion in sales. O’Brien acknowledged the figure is conservative but said the deal was light on integration work because the Raytheon businesses will continue largely as their own units rather than having their contents strewn about between existing United Technologies operations. While that limits the cost savings, it also makes it harder for United Technologies to foul up the deal as it juggles the Raytheon purchase with the continuing integration of Rockwell Collins Inc. and a pending three-way split.
With plenty of time and opportunity for something to go wrong here, United Technologies’ wager on scale is relatively untested and GE and Honeywell aren’t so sure that a bigger aerospace and defense company is necessarily going to be a better one. Both argue they have technology advantages that will keep them competitive. But GE again made interesting noises about possible M&A, with aviation head David Joyce noting that he didn’t feel compelled to act by the United Technologies-Raytheon tie-up but “wouldn’t rule out anything.”
SOMETHING TO PROVE
With the United Technologies-Raytheon merger looming large and questions mounting about cash flow for GE’s aviation unit, Joyce used the Paris Air Show to strike back at critics. GE Aviation and its CFM engine joint venture tallied $55 billion orders for engines and services at the event. Not all of that was technically new, but the haul was anchored by a legitimately impressive $20 billion order for Leap engines and services from Indian budget carrier IndiGo, which had previously relied exclusively on United Technologies jet engines to power its Airbus A320neo fleet.
Joyce also laid out the most in-depth road map for a unit’s free cash flow that I’ve ever seen GE provide. But in what has become an unfortunate pattern for GE, what was probably a well-intentioned attempt at transparency sparked only more questions. Analysts continued to pick apart whether the aviation unit’s $4.2 billion in free cash flow last year reflects the full tax, pension and overhead cost burden it would bear if the business were to stand alone.
While GE hasn’t voiced any plans to spin off the aviation unit — and I’m highly doubtful it would be able to do that given continuing challenges in the power and long-term care insurance operations — many investors rely on a sum-of-the-parts analysis to determine the stock’s appropriate valuation. So the legitimacy of that $4.2 billion number as the basis for an independent aviation unit is at the crux of the debate over where the share price goes from here.
After walking through the numbers with GE, I feel more comfortable about how they arrived at the $4.2 billion number. But no one knows for sure how all the numbers would shake out if aviation was ever detached from the mothership and the financial benefits inherent in that structure. United Technologies is taking about 18 months to split itself into three parts, and its structure is arguably less difficult to untangle. So I don’t think this debate is going away.
QUICK NOTE ON GECAS
GE’s jet-lessor arm announced a deal to lease 15 additional Boeing 737-800 converted cargo aircraft to Amazon.com Inc., expanding on an earlier agreement to provide the retail giant with five planes. Amazon aims to have 70 aircraft flying on its network by 2021 in just the latest reminder that its logistics aspirations are a real and growing threat to FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. In a presentation announcing the latest deal with Amazon, GECAS executives said it costs about $8 million to convert a Boeing 737-800 into a cargo plane.
In a separate conversation, Sarah Rhoads, the director of Amazon Air, said the company put out requests for proposals to other lessors and that its ultimate choice had to be cost-effective. She said she felt good about partnering with GECAS. In a meeting with analysts this week, Alec Burger, who heads GECAS, acknowledged that the forecast for the air-cargo market was flat in 2019 amid escalating trade tensions but said the continuing shift to online shopping will continue to support demand in the long term and he’s looking to “modestly grow” the share of the lessor’s portfolio that’s devoted to that market. He said Amazon is not a “must-win account.”
DEALS, ACTIVISTS AND CORPORATE GOVERNANCE
Crane Co. is following through on its threat to take its $45-a-share takeover offer directly to Circor International Inc.’s shareholders. It’s rare to see a true hostile tender offer, so for the M&A nerd in me, this is exciting. Circor’s board said on Monday that it would review the offer and make a recommendation to shareholders within 10 business days. It had previously rebuffed Crane’s offer as opportunistic and said it undervalued the company, a point of view that some shareholders pushed back on, given the choppy — and lately lower — stock price. Mario Gabelli, whose Gamco Investors Inc. is the largest shareholder of Circor, has also criticized the company’s lack of transparency in disclosing Crane’s interest. We are still awaiting the release of a business plan that Circor promised would show a path to greater valuation creation, but Crane’s willingness to go hostile forces Circor into an even tighter corner.
Delta Air Lines Inc. bought a 4.3 percent stake in Hanjin Kal Corp., the largest shareholder in Korean Air Lines Co. Delta and Korean Air have a trans-Pacific joint venture that allows the two carriers to coordinate on flights in Asia and the U.S. Delta expects to boost its stake to 10 percent over time. The stake purchase is the latest in a string of similar deals with other partners including Brazil’s Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA and China Eastern Airlines Corp.
But the deal also puts Delta in the middle of an activist shareholder’s campaign to push Hanjin Kal to provide more transparency and improve corporate governance. Shares of Hanjin Kal, whose operations also span logistics services, plunged on news of Delta’s investment in an apparent sign that investors see the company’s stake as a roadblock to the activists’ goals. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. appears to be moving forward with its interest in acquiring Bombardier Inc.’s CRJ regional jet program.
A takeover “would make a lot of sense,” Steve Haro, vice president in charge of global marketing and strategy at Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp., told Bloomberg News at the Paris Air Show. He said news about “new strategic partnerships” would be forthcoming. Recall that Nikkei had reported earlier this month that Mitsubishi wanted to only carve out the aircraft maintenance network of the CRJ program, but Bombardier had insisted on the unit being sold in its entirety.
(1) Stallard excludes announcements for options or future purchase rights and planes that will be taken throughaircraft lessors.
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