When Boeing requested a $60 billion bailout from the US government a few weeks ago, the implicit assumption was that the company may get some of this funding as long as the chronic stock repurchaser did not engage in layoffs. That, however, did not stop the brilliant financial alchemists at the aerospace giant who for the past 7 years turned debt lead into buyback gold, and instead of issuing a record amount of pink slips, Boeing generously offered voluntary buyouts to its entire staff of 161,000, in a bid to shed costs and adapt the massive manufacturer to a coronavirus crisis that could depress the aircraft market for years.
“When the world emerges from the pandemic, the size of the commercial market and the types of products and services our customers want and need will likely be different,” Chief Executive Officer David Calhoun said in a message to employees Thursday. “It’s important we start adjusting to our new reality now.”
According to Bloomberg which first reported about the offer, the buyout is being present companywide to all eligible employees of the Chicago-based company. Boeing will provide information on the terms within four weeks.
“This move aims to reduce the need for other workforce actions,” Calhoun said.
The move from the company which hopes to receive tens of billions whether or not it still employes workers or not, should preserve much-needed cash at Boeing, which is facing a sharp contraction in demand along with its European nemesis Airbus. About 44% of aircraft across the globe are in storage due to the coronavirus lockdown according to an estimate by Cirium, and with virus cases approaching 1 million worldwide, there’s no telling when carriers will return to normal schedules, no less buying planes.
"As painful as it is going to be, Boeing needs to reduce workers," said Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners based in London, adding that salaries make up the biggest portion of the company’s fixed costs. “If you don’t, you’ll destroy the company."
This, of course, makes sense. The question then is whether Boeing's bailout should be prorated by the number of employees it still has at the end of this fiasco.
Boeing was already reeling from a prolonged grounding of its 737 Max when the coronavirus pandemic hit, with revenue and cash flow depleted. The disease has slowed work on recertifying the single-aisle workhorse, while clouding the outlook for sales once it returns.
The company is also facing a falloff in demand for twin-aisle aircraft like its 787 Dreamliner and the coming 777X, as long-distance travel has been hit harder than shorter hops. Wide-body jetliner production could tumble by 60% over the next three years, Jefferies analyst Sheila Kahyaoglu predicted in a March 31 report.
As noted above, the need to downsize has created a dilemma for CEO Calhoun: while forced layoffs would give Boeing more control over where and how it cuts costs they would stir up a backlash that could complicate any effort by the manufacturer to access government aid.
While Boeing previously told Congress that the industry needs some $60 billion, Calhoun has blanched at the strings that would potentially be attached, telling Fox News that the company has “other options” should the government seek an equity stake in Boeing.
Of course, voluntary buyouts keep the government-bailout option viable, should Calhoun ultimately choose to pursue it. Boeing is analyzing the funding options available, people familiar with its review said last week.
Yet even if it is successful in letting 160,000 workers go without actually firing them, another challenge emerges: as it pares back its staff, Boeing will have trouble maintaining essential skills that will be needed when the market bounces back, Cunningham said. “But you have to actually survive as a company in order to come back again.”