Despite a very difficult year for Airbus, its purchase of a majority stake in Bombardier's CSeries jets meant the European manufacturer ended 2018 with commercial airplane production close to — and even arguably greater than — Boeing's record output.
Just-released airplane-production data for 2018 shows the balance of power between Airbus and Boeing at a tipping point in terms of the number of airplanes produced, although the U.S. giant remains solidly ahead in terms of the total dollar value of airplanes built last year.
Despite a very difficult year for Airbus that included major production delays and a drastic churn in its executive leadership ranks, its purchase of a majority stake in Bombardier’s CSeries jets meant the European manufacturer ended 2018 with commercial-airplane production figures that came close to matching — and even arguably outmatched — Boeing’s record output.
And in sales, though Airbus fell well short of Boeing in total new orders, the year-end tallies moved closer in December when Delta, JetBlue and U.S. startup carrier Moxy all placed firm orders for Airbus’ new small narrowbody jets from the lineup acquired in July from Bombardier in a screaming deal with no money down.
Airbus said Wednesday it finished the year with 800 airplane deliveries, including 20 of the former Bombardier planes, now renamed as the A220 family of jets. That’s a production record for Airbus, although it missed its original delivery target of 800 airplanes without the A220s added.
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Boeing Commercial on Tuesday announced its own record 806 jet deliveries in 2018, just four jets shy of its target. However, that figure included 10 767 military tanker aircraft that were not actually delivered to the Air Force customer, but only to Boeing’s defense unit for installation of military systems.
If a European wanted to quibble, removing those 10 Boeing “deliveries” would leave Airbus as the No. 1 plane maker in the world in 2018 in terms of number of airplanes built.
On the other hand, Boeing built many more of the more expensive widebody jets — 226 of the bigger airplanes compared with 154 for Airbus — so that in terms of the value of airplanes delivered, Boeing remains well ahead of its rival.
Market-pricing data from aircraft-valuation consultancy Avitas values the jets Boeing delivered in 2018 at about $60 billion after standard discounts, versus $54 billion for those Airbus delivered.
The airplane-delivery data show that the vast majority of Boeing’s commercial jet income comes from Renton’s 737 program, including growing numbers of the new MAX model, and from the 787 Dreamliner.
Everett produced 55 percent of the year’s Dreamliners, and North Charleston the rest.
For Airbus, the big moneymaking programs are the A320neo family and the widebody A350.
Airbus orders boosted, but Boeing ahead
In terms of orders, the addition of the 110-seat and 130-seat A220 models boosted Airbus’ year-end tally significantly.
Boeing finished 2018 with 893 net new orders, including 218 bigger widebody jets. Airbus had 747 net new orders, including 135 for the larger A220-300 model ordered in December by the three U.S. carriers, but only 71 widebody jets.
By chance, the 2018 total of 747 new orders for Boeing’s new 737 MAX model alone was precisely equal to Airbus’ net order total.
It’s the first time in six years that Boeing has won more orders than Airbus.
According to Avitas estimates, the total value of Boeing’s 2018 orders, assuming standard discounts, is about $66 billion, while the Airbus orders are valued at about $42 billion.
Still, the Bombardier acquisition and the addition of the A220 jets to the Airbus lineup clearly disturbs the production balance between the two global aerospace giants.
While Boeing followed Airbus’ move by negotiating a similar deal with Embraer of Brazil to acquire its E-jet lineup of small narrowbodies, it awaits the approval of the Brazilian government and is not expected to close the acquisition until late in 2019.
Meanwhile, Airbus is solidifying its position. While all the A220s are currently assembled at the former Bombardier plant in Mirabel, Canada, this fall Airbus will begin production for the U.S. market on a new assembly line at its facility in Mobile, Alabama.
Airbus on Wednesday posted the first manufacturing job openings for the new Mobile A220 line. With hiring for that and similar production positions on the current A320 production line in Mobile, Airbus said it expects to hire approximately 600 new employees in Alabama over the next 18 months.
In an interview in London in July, Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said the company has “thrown our whole Airbus weight behind the A220, and the other guys still have some way to go.”
Could 2019 be an inflection point?
As A220 production ramps up, Airbus could potentially build more jets than Boeing in the year ahead, after seven straight years — including 2018, with that asterisk against the tanker deliveries — when Boeing has held the No. 1 slot as the world’s top airplane manufacturer.
Bainbridge Island-based aviation analyst Scott Hamilton of Leeham.net points out that if both manufacturers achieve their announced and expected production rates this year, Airbus could deliver 950 jets to Boeing’s 890.
Enders steps down this spring, with the team of top executives underneath him already entirely replaced, so Airbus faces 2019 with a new, unproven leadership team in place.
How the year shakes out in the end will depend on both manufacturers overcoming their recent production issues.
Both suffered in 2018 from production delays due to jet engine issues that also hit their in-service aircraft fleets.
Boeing also faced delays in 737 fuselage deliveries from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, though its year-end 737 delivery figures suggest those issues are largely behind it and the pileup of unfinished jets around Renton is mostly cleared.
However, this year Boeing plans to increase 737 production from 52 per month to 57 per month. Boeing’s 2019 production total will depend heavily on how well it manages that rate hike in Renton, which will add more strain to the supply chain.
Aside from that, Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg must be nervously watching developments in Brazil as he seeks to close his Embraer deal to fill the gap that’s opened in his airplane lineup against Airbus.
Editor’s note: The graphics in this story have been updated to include value figures that were not visible previously for the 747, 787 and totals.