Boeing Barges Into Aircraft-Seat Business in Threat to Suppliers

Jan. 17, 2018
The joint venture with Adient Plc will market seats to airlines and leasing companies that are ordering new planes and retrofitting older ones.

Fed up with delays that have plagued production of luxurious jetliner cabins, Boeing Co. is forming its own company with a major seat supplier to the auto industry.

The joint venture with Adient Plc will be based near Frankfurt, Germany, along with a technology center and an initial production plant, the companies said in a statement Tuesday. It will market seats to airlines and leasing companies that are ordering new planes and retrofitting older ones.

The strategy furthers Boeing’s foray into so-called vertical integration as Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg seeks to bring more work back in-house. That’s a reversal of the global outsourcing that dominated strategy at the Chicago-based planemaker a decade ago, when the company was building the first 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing said the Adient Aerospace venture was prompted by seat production foul-ups and a capacity crunch that have delayed jet deliveries and frustrated airlines. United Continental Holding Inc.’s premium Polaris seats were slow to make their debut on the Boeing 777-300ER last year when Zodiac Aerospace fell behind schedule.

“Seats have been a persistent challenge for our customers, the industry and Boeing, and we are taking action to help address constraints in the market,” Kevin Schemm, a Boeing senior vice president of supply chain management, finance and business operations, said in the statement.

Boeing, the biggest gainer last year and so far this year on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, fell less than 1% to $333.76 after the close of regular trading in New York. Adient tumbled 5.1% to $78 after the company said in a regulatory filing that first-quarter results would be hurt by hurdles in its seat structures and mechanisms business.

The move risks adding tension to the sometimes fraught relationships between Boeing and some of its largest suppliers. Safran SA, which makes engines for Boeing’s 737 Max through a joint venture with General Electric Co., is taking over Zodiac.

Rockwell Collins Inc., a long-time supplier of radio and flight displays to Boeing, last year bought B/E Aerospace Inc., the largest cabin-equipment supplier. United Technologies Corp. later struck a deal to acquire Rockwell, a deal aimed at gaining bargaining clout with Boeing and rival Airbus SE.

Adient, a titan in the $70 billion automotive-seating business, has been hinting at a closer relationship with Boeing since the companies announced a collaboration last March. Boeing Vice Chairman Ray Conner, a former chief of its commercial airplane division, is on Adient’s board. The Plymouth, Mich.-based company was spun off from Johnson Controls International Plc in 2016.

Potential 'Disruptor'

With 230 plants worldwide, Adient sees itself as a potential “disruptor” in the aircraft seating realm, Mark Oswald, vice president of investor relations, said at a conference in September. “The customers aren’t excited about the current supply base,” he said. When Adient was approached, a board member “was very influential” in spurring it to look at the opportunity, he said.

The two companies, in particular, are eyeing complex, lie-flat seats that can cost as much as a Ferrari. “The front-of-a-plane business, full-flat business class is kind of our initial entree,” Adient Chief Executive Officer Bruce McDonald said at a conference in August.

Adient is the majority owner of the venture with a 50.01% stake to Boeing’s 49.99% share. The company’s initial customer-service center will be in Seattle, where Boeing already has a hub catering to airlines shopping for cabin fittings. Spare parts for the seats will be sold through Boeing’s Aviall subsidiary.

By sourcing its own seats along with other aircraft components, Boeing gains greater control over quality, intellectual property and high-margin aftermarket sales -- the main source of profit for aerospace suppliers. The company has expanded its reach into avionics, additive manufacturing, actuators and engine covers known as nacelles.

By Julie Johnsson

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Licensed content from Bloomberg, copyright 2016.

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