KEARNEY COLUMN: Flying high to close 2012, Boeing finds itself grounded in 2013

On Jan. 17 the FAA ordered all Boeing 787's grounded. Here, a line of 787 jets are parked at Paine Field in Everett, Wash.

What a difference a few weeks make.

That's how the Jan. 7 edition of this column began. It was a commentary on Boeing Co.'s tremendous finish to 2012.

In a short span, the company well-exceeded its previously announced goal for 787 Dreamliner deliveries, announced plans to greatly expand its footprint in North Charleston and reclaimed the title of world's biggest aircraft maker from European archrival Airbus, among other minor achievements.

Then, on the same morning that column was published, a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire shortly after almost 200 passengers and crew alighted from their Tokyo-to-Boston flight.

What happened next has been well-documented: more glitches, like fuel leaks and a windshield crack, the announcement of a Federal Aviation Administration review of the entire 787 program, another smoky battery malfunction, this time in flight, prompting an emergency landing in Japan; and then, what Boeing hoped would never happen, the FAA-ordered grounding of all 787s.

On Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman said her team still does not know what caused the Boston battery incident and that they are still in the early stages of their investigation.

In other words, Boeing had been flying high, and now the pride of the Lowcountry (and the United States) is scrambling to get its prize planes and its reputation back to where they were.

On Wednesday morning, Boeing will release its quarterly and 2012 earnings report, and CEO Jim McNerney, who so far has issued only prepared statements, will inevitably face a series of tough questions from investment analysts and reporters.

McNerney has piloted Boeing during a period of big profits and major achievements, but unless his engineers working with government investigators figure out what's wrong with the Dreamliner and how to fix it — soon — that conference call could be McNerney's last as CEO.

What a difference a few weeks make.

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.

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