Boeing-Airbus 2007 orders race closes with 'diplomatic' finish

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The two protagonists in the mainline airliner sector broke all sales records in 2007 - their combined total of 2,754 net orders worth over $321 billion smashed the previous high of 2,057 set two years ago.

The record year for orders, which looks set to remain unbeaten at least for the immediate future, saw Boeing emerge victorious in net orders. Although Airbus was ahead of its rival in gross orders, its attack was blunted largely because it was regrouping after the relaunch of its A350 XWB, which meant that one-quarter of the 290 orders booked for the new twinjet were reconfirmations of existing deals and therefore lowered its net order total.

"We're at 51% market share gross, and 49% net - it seems like an extremely diplomatic solution to me," quips Airbus chief operating officer John Leahy.

Until recently, Airbus had become accustomed to beating its rival in orders, but chief executive Tom Enders plays down the fact that it trailed Boeing for the second year running. "We're absolutely not disappointed," he says. "What counts is that it was a record year for us. After our very difficult 2006, it was not automatic that we would get that many orders in 2007."

Although Airbus racked up 254 additional gross orders in December, that was not enough to push it ahead of Boeing's net order total. But Leahy suggests an outright victory is within reach because several large order confirmations signed in December were not included in the 2007 total. These include Grupo Marsans' order for 65 aircraft and Dubai Aerospace Enterprise's for 100 - significantly, the latter's similarly sized Boeing order was counted in the US manufacturer's 2007 total.

"We signed the orders in December, but the deposits were not received before the turn of the year so we decided not to include them," says Leahy.

This is a shift from the Airbus of old, when it would appear to have worked flat-out in the last month of the year to firm up all its outstanding commitments to grab a last-gasp victory in the orders race.

After repeatedly under-predicting the following year's order level in recent times, Airbus executives are reluctant to make too much of their short-term outlook, although Leahy expects Airbus's 2008 orders to be "less than half of the 2007 total but higher than the 2008 delivery level of over 470 aircraft".

While Airbus leads the single-aisle sector, with its 913 A320 family orders giving it a market share of 52%, the airframer trails Boeing in the high-value widebody market, but has narrowed the gap from 2006. Airbus's 428 net orders for widebodies pushed its share of the overall widebody market up from a dismal 30% in 2006 to 43% in 2007.

The previous year's poor performance (137 net orders) was a reflection of the status of the A350 programme, which spent most of 2006 effectively suspended as it underwent reinvention as the XWB.

Airbus was more dependent on its narrowbody family than Boeing again in 2007, with A320 sales representing 68% of its total net orders, versus 60% for Boeing's 737.

Last year saw another poor performance for the A340, with the A340-300 backlog declining to just three aircraft and net orders for the -500/600 in the red at minus nine. The latter was due to a low order intake (15 aircraft) and cancellations, including the Emirates order for 18 A340-600s.

Airbus beat Boeing in production terms for the fifth consecutive year, with 453 deliveries compared with 441 for its rival. Total deliveries were 894, worth $90 billion, which was up 7% on the 832 in 2006 but still a little shy of the industry record of 914 shipments in 1999.

The indications are that Boeing will be ahead in 2008, because it is forecasting deliveries of 480-490 aircraft against "more than 470" for Airbus - although the final outcome will depend on what impact the 787 delay has on the US airframer's shipments this year.

Airbus's share of widebody deliveries declined from 51% in 2006 to 44% in 2007, as its overall output in the category fell from 95 to 86 units. This was caused by a 50% decline in A340 deliveries from 24 to 11, which was not offset by the slight rise in A330 deliveries combined with the handover of the first A380.

Production rates are rising across the Airbus factories from a monthly total of 43 aircraft (34 A320 family, eight A330/A340s and one A380) to 54 (40 A320 family, 10 A330/A340s and four A380s) in 2010, and Leahy says a further increase of A330/A340 to 11 a month is being examined.

The combined order backlog has risen by 37% to a staggering 6,848 aircraft, split almost exactly 50/50 between Airbus and Boeing. The latter dominates the widebody category, with a 60% share, while Airbus leads the single-aisle sector with 55% share.