Coronavirus shockwave rocks airplane manufacturers, suppliers


SYDNEY/MONTREAL (Reuters) – The pandemic is taking its toll on aerospace manufacturing, as Boeing Co (BA.N) announced it would halt production of most widebody jets and Airbus SE (AIR.PA) restarted only partial output after a four-day shutdown as suppliers cut jobs.

FILE PHOTO: Planes are seen parked at gates at San Francisco International Airport, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) disruption continues its spread across the global industry, in San Francisco, California, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

With airlines unable to fly because of a collapse of demand over fears of contagion, reinforced by air travel restrictions, planemakers and their suppliers are under pressure to save cash to ride out a squeeze on liquidity.

Moody’s cut its outlook for the aerospace and defense industry to negative from stable and warned that even when markets recover, the damaged balance sheets of most airlines would hurt demand for new aircraft.

Global passenger capacity fell by 35% last week, the worst since the start of the crisis, according to data from airline schedules firm OAG, which said deeper cuts were likely in the coming weeks.

Boeing faces the shutdown of key assembly lines for the second time in a year after being forced to halt production of its grounded 737 MAX aircraft in January.

Production of long-haul jets like the 787 and 777 in Washington state will pause for 14 days starting Wednesday, forcing the world’s largest industrial building, the giant Boeing wide-body plant at Everett north of Seattle, to fall silent for the first time in recent memory.

As the crisis deepens, U.S. lawmakers are considering changing some of about $58 billion in proposed emergency loans to the airline industry to cash grants to cover payroll costs, four people familiar with the matter said.

Democratic U.S. lawmakers late on Monday proposed giving struggling U.S. airlines and contractors $40 billion in cash grants that would not be paid back and would require significant new environmental, labor and other conditions.

Brazil’s Embraer SA (EMBR3.SA), the world’s third-largest aircraft maker, said on Sunday it would furlough all non-essential workers in Brazil where it makes regional jets and further measures could be announced later this week.

Joining the list of temporary shutdowns is Bombardier, which is suspending Canadian production of business jets, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury had called for strong government support for airlines and suppliers but stopped short of calling for direct aid for Airbus itself, which has secured an extra 15 billion euros ($16.14 billion) of commercial credit lines.

The European planemaker has, however, told officials privately that it may need European government help if the crisis lasts for several months, Reuters reported last week.

Industry executives said the biggest source of alarm was the global supply chain of thousands of suppliers who would be severely hurt by abrupt stop-start movements in plane output. Many are already severely stressed by the year-long 737 MAX grounding.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers on Monday said in a letter to Congress that more than 500,000 U.S. aerospace production jobs could be in jeopardy and called for a relief package that included provisions to protect against layoffs.

Engine maker GE Aviation (GE.N) announced plans to cut its U.S. workforce by around 10%, according to a letter to staff.

GE’s aviation unit employed about 52,000 people globally as of 2019, with about half of them working in the United States.

Montreal-based training specialist CAE Inc (CAE.TO) has temporarily closed three commercial aviation training centers and is laying off 465 manufacturing workers and slashing executive salaries and capital spending to contain costs.

German aircraft engine maker MTU Aero Engines (MTXGn.DE) said it would shut output in some European plants for three weeks.

The shutdowns are designed in part to allow for deep cleaning and the re-organisation of factory workers, who must stand further apart and avoid working in clusters, slowing output.

But analysts expressed doubts over the strength of future demand as the industry recovers from its worst crisis.

A global recession combined with the possibility that corporate travel does not recover could hamper a full recovery, said Martin Hallmark, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

The ratings agency expects airline passenger volumes to fall by 25% to 35% this year.

Reporting by Jamie Freed and Allison Lampert; additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, David Shepardson in Washington, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru, Marcelo Rochabrun in Sao Paolo and Eric M Johnson in Seattle; writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by Gerry Doyle

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