IN FOCUS: Airbus grows global fleet presence

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Airbus was the main contributor to the slight increase in world airliner population indicated by trends in global fleet data, as a decline in older Boeing types marginally reduced the US airframer's presence.

Airbus's share of the in-service worldwide fleet crept above 25% at just fewer than 6,400 aircraft. Boeing's figure declined to below 40%, although its total stayed above 10,000. Between them, the manufacturers accounted for almost two-thirds of the 23,378 aircraft in Flightglobal's latest annual airliner census, a total that points to a population rise of 1.8% during the previous 12 months.

While the data suggest continuing momentum for the Airbus A320 - an 8.7% growth rate took the fleet close to 4,800 jets - this rise was exceeded by the 10.5% surge for modern variants of the rival Boeing 737.

These variants - from the 737-600 upwards - accounted for 3,875 aircraft, while another 1,476 older-generation 737s remain in service, although the census indicates this fleet is declining as rapidly as its successor is expanding.

During 2012's first seven months, Airbus delivered 253 A320-family jets while Boeing handed over 241 737s.

The census points to the number of parked aircraft remaining relatively high, the stored fleet climbing above 3,900 airframes. While the parked proportion of the world total, 13.4%, is mathematically the highest for three years, it has essentially stayed around the same level since the sharp upward spike in fuel prices in mid-2008 sparked a clear-out of inefficient types.

UNSURPRISING SLUMP

Jet fuel prices rose steadily during 2009-2010 and have hovered around the $120 per barrel level since the beginning of 2011. This has accelerated not only the retirement of older types - data for the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and Boeing MD-80 showed an unsurprising slump in the total fleet - but also that of smaller-capacity regional jets whose operating economics have been sliding into the wrong side of the cost equation.

Census figures reflect this trend through a 4.2% fall in the Bombardier CRJ200 fleet to about 700 aircraft. However, a 14% surge in take-up of the larger 70- to 90-seat family offered by Embraer to more than 830 catapulted the type two places up the regional aircraft ranks to second.

Despite the popularity of the Brazilian jets, Bombardier's long-established Dash 8/Q Series turboprops clung on to the top position in the regional category. Embraer pushed ATR down into third position although the turboprop manufacturer, buoyed by the cost of fuel, has experienced a glut of orders for its aircraft.

The demise of the 50-seat jet market is likely to result in extensive restructuring of regional fleets, particularly in the USA, as local connections become unrealistic and airlines opt to serve more significant feeder points with larger types.

Bombardier remained the third-placed airframer behind Boeing and Airbus in the global fleet data, ahead of Embraer and ATR. These five accounted for 84% of the world fleet, with Antonov in sixth place. Antonov's contribution of about 600 aircraft is a remnant of Soviet-era mass production, as the total output for modern Russian efforts - primarily the An-148 and Sukhoi Superjet 100 - has barely moved into double figures, while Tupolev's Tu-204SM programme shows few signs of life.

CONTRASTING FORTUNES

United Aircraft delivered seven commercial jets to customers and had laid plans to deliver another 36 this year, among them 24 Superjets and nine An-148s.

The census reveals the decline of the Boeing 757, the fleet total falling to 860 aircraft, as well as the Airbus A340, poor sales of which prompted the European airframer to formally cease production of the type towards the end of last year.

However the A330 continues to thrive, its popularity lifted in part by delays to the Boeing 787, which entered service last year.

Boeing's 777 has similarly kept pace, with a near-9% increase in the fleet taking the type's presence to more than 1,000 airframes.

air team images 

Air Team Images

Delays to the 787 have helped the A330's popularity

Airbus is extending the appeal of the A330 - which has secured more than 1,200 orders - by enhancing its performance through a hike in maximum take-off weight, even as the airframer positions its A350 as a successor.

Boeing is countering the A350 not only with the 787 - a third variant of which, the -10, appears closer to realisation - but also a possible upgrade to the 777.

In the large-capacity sector, the total number of Boeing 747s - of which the new 747-8 is a derivative - fell below 700 aircraft, while the Airbus A380, with only 80 deliveries to the end of July, has yet to feature in the top 10.

While Asia - combined with Australasia and the Middle East - lies behind the Americas and Europe in the geographical distribution of the world's airliners, with a 27% share, the order backlog shows the strength of the region in terms of future business. The census indicates that almost 50% of the backlog of nearly 8,000 aircraft is bound for the region, with the Americas accounting for another 27%. Europe's backlog covers 20% of the total, while a minimal share is taken up by Africa.

Although the backlog split between the two major airframers is largely equal, Airbus has the edge over Boeing in the Asian region while its US rival, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds a stronger position in the Americas.