Can Boeing keep flying high in 2014?

January 10, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Since the new year, Boeing won a critical labor battle, beat rival Airbus in total 2013 deliveries, and flirted with its 52-week high. Can it keep going?

By Clay Dillow

A model of the new Boeing 777X aircraft is seen on display at the company's stand during the 13th Dubai Airshow on Nov. 18, 2013.

A model of the Boeing 777X aircraft is seen on display at the company's stand during the 13th Dubai Airshow on Nov. 18, 2013.

FORTUNE -- Has anyone had a better start to 2014 than Boeing? One week into the new year, the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer has won a critical labor battle, bested its European rival in total airframe deliveries for the year just completed, and announced a fresh $4.4 billion, 42-plane order for its new, fuel-efficient 737 MAX airliner from Indian budget carrier SpiceJet. To be fair, Boeing says at least part of that order is included in its 2013 order numbers and therefore is already part of its existing backlog, but still -- not a bad way to kick off the new year.

"I think it's been a very good four-month streak," Richard Aboulafia, VP of analysis at Fairfax, Va.,-based aerospace industry analysis firm Teal Group, says of Boeing (BA). "You're burying the lead if you're confining this to just the start of the year -- November saw the very strong launch of the 777X. So it's been a fantastic few months."

Going into 2014, Boeing looks particularly well-positioned within the global commercial aerospace industry. Numbers released Monday show that for the second year running Boeing outdelivered chief rival Airbus, producing a record 648 jetliners last year (Airbus hasn't officially released its final numbers yet, but industry sources report it produced more than 625 but less than Boeing's 648). Its stock is hovering around its 52-week high. The 787 Dreamliner is past its early growing pains and into mature production. Its new aircraft are showing strong orders right off the bat. And, Aboulafia adds, it dodged a bullet as the deferral of sequestration has eliminated a serious threat to its defense business.

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That's not the only bullet the company has dodged of late. Since the November launch of the 777X -- an updated, more efficient version of Boeing's mainstay 777 wide-body airliner, the largest twin-engine commercial jet on the market and a major profit-driver for Boeing -- carriers around the globe have booked orders totaling more than $100 billion. But a dispute with its machinists' union over future pension benefits and other issues briefly threatened Boeing's ability to competitively manufacture the 777X at its primary Seattle-area manufacturing hub.

Last Friday, that issue was resolved when a key union vote broke in Boeing's favor, ensuring that manufacturing of both the 777X and the 737 MAX -- a more efficient revamp of Boeing's legacy single-aisle passenger jet -- will remain in Washington state. The deal ensures not only that Boeing can develop the core of its new commercial jet lineup at its most experienced and tested manufacturing facilities, but it vastly reduces the risk of labor disruptions as Boeing looks to deliver the 737 MAX and 777X in 2017 and 2020, respectively. That's reassuring to customers (who now have another option in the Airbus A350-1000, slated to enter service in 2017) and to shareholders; riding a successful labor battle, a strong order book, and a favorable aerospace marketplace into 2014, Boeing looks pretty invincible.

"There's a confluence of good news right now," says Brian Foley, President of Brian Foley Associates and aviation industry analyst. "But we can't get blinded by the extreme short term. From an investor's standpoint things do seem to be coming together very well, but it's a cyclical business."

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While Boeing remains the world's biggest planemaker for another year, Airbus very likely booked more new orders last year (again, Airbus doesn't release official numbers until next week, but industry sources are confident), putting Boeing's European rival on firm competitive ground in the long term. And though Boeing's commercial side is thriving, its defense business is taking something of a drumming, at least in terms of exports. Its C-17 military transport production line is slated to close by 2015. A potential $7 billion sale of 60 F-15s to South Korea was scrapped last year as Seoul opted to purchase Lockheed Martin's new F-35 Lightning. Around the same time, Boeing lost a $4.5 billion deal to supply Brazil with F/A-18s when the government there decided to buy Swedish Saab jets instead.

Its commercial side could be looking at something of a slow period as well, analysts say. While Boeing's new generations of commercial jets are selling well, they won't deliver for several years. In the meantime, the existence of a new generation of aircraft often hurts the sales of existing generations, as airlines move to update their fleets to the latest and greatest. In a research report published by Oppenheimer in November, analysts Yair Reiner and William Lee note that "the launch of the 777X appears to have left the 777 program, which accounts for an estimated quarter of BA's total profit, in the lurch. The 777 needs to hold down the fort for 6-7 years until the 777X enters into service, but currently has only 3.3 years of backlog."

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And then, Teal Group's Aboulafia notes, there's the handling of the recent labor dispute, in which some critics argue Boeing strong-armed its workers into taking a raw deal by threatening to move production (and jobs) to another state at great expense rather than give up ground on pension benefits. "They've been very aggressive with suppliers and they've been very aggressive with labor, and that can come back to haunt you, that can be damaging." Aboulafia says. "This was a very aggressive labor contract, and they got what they wanted by 51%. They also got a disgruntled workforce."

So where does all that really leave Boeing (and its investors) for the balance of 2014?

"I'd suspect that 2014 will continue to see Boeing stock climb, and that could continue right into next year as well when they deliver some of these aircraft and record cash when that happens," Foley says. Pressure from both Airbus and from small-but-growing players like Brazil's Embraer and Canada's Bombardier Aerospace will erode Boeing's (and Airbus's) market share in the long-term. And while Boeing's 2013 order book might not be quite as full as Airbus's, that won't impact either company's bottom line significantly until those aircraft are delivered.

It's in the medium and long term where Boeing may find itself facing serious headwinds. Just as Oppenheimer's Reiner and Lee are concerned with the 777's ability to continue selling until the 777X is delivered, Foley worries about 737 sales in the nearer term. "There's a question of whether they'll be able to sell enough of their existing 737s while waiting for the new iteration to come online," he says. "The first 737 MAX enters service in 2017, and there's three years between now and then."

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For investors looking to gauge the strength of Boeing and the larger aircraft manufacturing sector going forward, it might be wiser to take a step back from the industry and look at it through a wider lens, Aboulafia says. One week of good headlines, no matter how good, won't carry Boeing for an entire year. And bullish though he is on Boeing's past few months, the future isn't dictated solely by order backlogs, production numbers, and labor contracts.

"You've got continued strong commercial jet numbers largely because you've got an almost impossibly good combination of events in the macro environment: very low interest rates and oil prices that are kind of in a sweet spot -- not to so high that airlines can't make money and not so low that older jets are more attractive than newer ones," he says. "But you've got a fundamental problem for Boeing's strongest and most profitable unit, which is: What if anything changes?"

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