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Coronavirus opens a stark divide in America’s aerospace industry

Raytheon, Boeing hit by pandemic drop in travel while companies focused on weaponry are weathering downturn

An American flag flies in front of Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems facility, in Woburn, Mass. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Third-quarter financial earnings reported in recent weeks reveal a stark economic divide in America’s aerospace industry, an export-rich sector that employs hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers across all 50 states.

The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus has elevated those who build jets, missiles and other advanced weaponry for the U.S. military and its allies. But companies involved in commercial aircraft production have seen their finances wrecked by a persistent global slowdown in air travel.

Analysts said the divide illustrates how the coronavirus has created unexpected winners and losers throughout the economy.

“Companies that are largely in the defense business are doing just fine ... the impact of covid-19 on their operations has been minimal,” said Ron Epstein, managing director for aerospace and defense at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research.

“It looks like it’s going to be a pretty rough winter for commercial aerospace,” Epstein later added.

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Companies that make or contribute to the production of commercial jets have been forced to make tough choices as airline demand for new jets has collapsed. And the workforce has often borne the brunt of it.

Waltham, Mass.-based manufacturer Raytheon Technologies has laid off almost 20,000 people who worked primarily in the company’s engine and aircraft parts divisions, executives said. The staff reductions account for about a fifth of the company’s commercial workforce, which it only recently obtained through a massive merger with a company previously known as United Technologies.

Collins Aerospace, an aircraft parts manufacturer that Raytheon acquired in the deal, reported a 34 percent drop in sales in the third quarter of 2020, compared with last year. Pratt & Whitney, a Connecticut-based jet engine manufacturer acquired in the same transaction, also lost about a third of its sales.

Raytheon chief executive Greg Hayes told investors the staff reductions were “difficult but necessary," and added that the company is planning for “a long, slow recovery."

“The fact is we don’t think you’re going to see return to normalcy until probably mid-2023 at the earliest,” Hayes said.

The recovery “is clearly not a V," Hayes said, referring to a quick bounce back that many had hoped would follow the economic crisis.

Few in the industry have been hit harder than Boeing, the beleaguered Chicago-based jet manufacturer. Boeing entered the crisis in a weak position because its flagship 737 Max jet was grounded as a result of equipment problems. The Max still has not been cleared to fly.

Boeing has survived only by loading itself up with debt and carrying out aggressive restructuring efforts to prepare for years of depressed sales.

In early May, it raised $25 billion in a corporate bond sale, making its debt comparable to that of some small sovereign nations like New Zealand and Iceland. It started another bond sale Thursday that should free up even more cash.

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It has also carried out aggressive staff cuts, redirecting entire product lines to conserve resources.

Boeing announced Wednesday it will cut its global workforce to 130,000 by the end of 2021; it started 2020 with 160,000. The cutbacks will have a particular effect in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle, which faces steep cutbacks related to production of the 787 Dreamliner. That production line is being consolidated at a nonunion factory in South Carolina.

Companies that get a majority of their revenue from government contracts ― General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, in particular ― are doing well, by comparison.

“At least covid-wise, the defense industrial base has been somewhat of a haven from the storms that are buffeting the economy,” said Wes Hallman, vice president at the National Defense Industrial Association.

Despite the operational disruption the pandemic caused to their government customers, those companies benefited from an early declaration that businesses involved in national security should be considered essential. They were also helped by improved financing terms that the Pentagon approved early on in the crisis, as well as by funding that was directed at some of their suppliers.

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General Dynamics, which specializes in military weaponry including tanks and nuclear submarines but also owns the Gulfstream business jet manufacturer, saw a modest increase in revenue over the previous quarter. Gulfstream delivered more jets in the most recent quarter than Boeing did, a mark of how the pandemic has changed business.

Northrop Grumman saw a 7 percent increase in the most recent quarter despite more than $800 million in covid-related costs. The growth was driven in large part by new business in the company’s space systems division. It secured a leadership role in an $85 billion program to rebuild the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor and the maker of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, had its best quarter ever. It reported record sales of $16.5 billion, representing an 8.7 percent increase over the previous quarter.

Business is going so well at Lockheed that the company was able to “accelerate” about $1.8 billion to its suppliers. It also increased its quarterly dividend by about 8.6 percent.

George Ferguson, an aerospace analyst with Bloomberg, said the recent results also show how some companies may have over-invested in commercial aircraft before the crisis.

“With every economic expansion, management teams sort of lose their minds," Ferguson said. "You get to the end of the expansion, and commercial is rising so fast that they’d like to put all of their business there. And then you’re reminded that air travel can stop on a dime.”