Airbus has taken the lead in its long-running annual order battle with Boeing and is drawing level on backlog, but there is still all to play for as the two manufacturers head into 2000.

The battle has been fought out for the best part of three decades, but as the airliner manufacturers rolled out their year-end order figures, it became clear that Airbus, arguably for the first time, was a clear winner. Whichever way it is cut the European consortium could definitively claim to have out-sold Boeing over 1999 with more than half of large aircraft orders.

Airbus has been ahead on the numbers before, albeit briefly. Back in 1994 it had run Boeing more or less even, but that was at the depths of the bust with orders at their lowest point for years. And Boeing responded in style, wiping out any advantage the following year.

In 1998 as Boeing struggled with its production problems and absorbed McDonnell Douglas, Airbus again drew close with Seattle, but the expanded Boeing group still retained an edge. Last year it was different. Not only has Toulouse managed to net a convincing majority of orders, but it also, for the first time, came out top on values. Until now, Boeing's mix of lucrative widebody business has kept it comfortably ahead. This time, the Airbus tally of 476 orders topped the $30 billion mark. Boeing was marginally behind with 391 aircraft valued at just over $28 billion.

An analysis of figures over a single year comes with the usual health warnings. In fact, the overall net order numbers (after cancellations)were down by close to 25% and remain affected by one-off factors. Airbus received a boost from 120 launch orders for the new A318, taking the total for its single-aisle family above 400. That was ahead of the 737/757 tally at below 300. Boeing also took the precaution of boosting its year-end total with a raft of "previously unannounced" orders (around 160), and said in mid-December that it would now include "unidentified customers" in future reports.

Yet, the underlying trend shines through in the backlog figures, arguably a more reliable long-range measure. Here, too, Airbus is close to parity, only 70 aircraft and $12 billion short of the Boeing total. That is also likely to show through in a more even balance of deliveries as Seattle continues to gear down and Toulouse ramps up.

The Long Beach production lines are virtually out of the equation, with TWA taking the final delivery of an MD-80 last month and the last MD-90 following on. The MD-11 line will soon cease, leaving only the 717 there.

But there is still all to play for, especially as Asia recovers and brings with it the hope for a rise in widebody demand - net widebody orders were down by over 40% in 1999, despite a welcome comeback for the 747. Airbus is still edging closer to a full launch of the A3XX. Airlines are now being approached and a final decision is at long last promised in the first half of the year. That could well prove the next crucial battle in the on-going war of the manufacturers.

Source: Airline Business