Airbus may not have been able to produce a surprise winning hand in the order battle for the second year running, but as it loses the order crown to Boeing for the first time in six years, it is confident it can put the trials of 2006 behind it. With its armoury now up to full strength following the industrial launch of the A330-200F and A350 XWB, Airbus has declared itself ready to fight back.
Although Boeing's 1,044 net orders soundly beat Airbus into second place last year, the European airframer declared itself satisfied with the turnaround in performance it achieved by the end of 2006 after the dramatic developments it suffered in the middle of last year. It managed to secure 790 orders in 2006 - its second highest annual performance ever - enabling it to claw back to an overall net order market share of 43% in unit terms, against a mid-year position of less than 20%.
Speaking at Airbus's annual results briefing in Paris last week, chief operating officer customers John Leahy pointed out that despite the problematic year and the loss of the lead to Boeing, Airbus was within the 40-60% market share bracket that it has as its stated target "which was a remarkable recovery given where we were at mid-year". He dismisses the loss to rival Boeing in the orders race as little more than a blip, saying "after five years of outselling them, one year doesn't exactly make a trend".
However, the indecision over the A350 left the Airbus salesmen in a state of limbo for much of last year, and Leahy was quick to point out that it was here that the real damage was done in the sales battle with Boeing. "The A330/A340 outsold the 777, and there have been more than a few conversations over beers in Toulouse about how we'd have faired against the 787 if we'd had the industrial launch at Farnborough when we announced the A350 XWB." Airbus had to wait until December for the full go-ahead, giving Boeing a free hand for most of the year to sign up 787 customers.
The result was that Boeing took 70% of the net orders for the high-value widebody types, which pushed Airbus's market share of total net orders by value down below 40%, according to Flight International's calculations. Based on average list prices, the 2006 total net tally of 1,834 orders was worth around $179 billion, of which Boeing's slice ($109 billion) equated to a 61% share.
But Leahy confidently predicts an A350 revival this year, forecasting that by the end of 2007 Airbus will have accumulated "about 200 orders" for the A350. "We've already got about 100 in our orderbook - I don't see anybody expressing any interest to cancel those orders - we might get one or two cancellations, but not many," he says.
Airbus acknowledges that after the industry's record-breaking 2005 when more than 2,000 orders were placed, the strength of the market last year was a surprise, but is sure that this cannot be sustained for a third successive year. "I expect 2007 orders industry-wide to be back around the 1,000 mark, shared between us in the 40-60% range," he says.
Airbus continues to be the lead producer of mainline airliners, but Boeing has closed the gap significantly and pushed the European airframer's share from 57% of the units in 2005 to 52% last year.
Again the relative lack of high value A340-500/600 shipments versus Boeing's latest 777 variants has pushed Airbus's market share by dollar value down to almost parity with its rival, according to our estimates.
Production across the assembly lines in Toulouse, Hamburg and Seattle is rising steadily toward the industry's all-time peak of just over 900 aircraft achieved in 1999. Boeing expects to ship 440-445 aircraft this year and Airbus chief executive Louis Gallois forecasts Airbus will be in the same ballpark - "440 to 450 deliveries", he says. The two rivals will be in perfect equilibrium for the first time and the 900 units combined total will be the springboard for the industry's leap into the production record books in 2008 - barring any unforeseen shocks.
Although Airbus is already plotting further output increases for the A320 and A330 from 2008 - when deliveries of the A380 will also begin to ramp up - Leahy admits that next year it could be over taken by its rival for the first time since 2003. "It depends if they deliver as many 787s as they say they will - inevitably there could be delay that affects their 2008 delivery plan."
Leahy adds that the long-term forecast is for annual deliveries to average around 800-900 units a year, and he expects the industry's current boom in shipments to peak around the 2010-2011 mark.
As predicted by Flight International earlier this year, Airbus retains the lead of the order backlog - which across both manufacturers' lines has spiralled up by 25% to the record-setting 4,990 aircraft worth over $520 billion. However, Airbus's lead in unit terms has declined four points to just 51%, while its rival's stronger widebody backlog - it has a 61% of the orders - means it has taken the lead in dollar terms.