Airbus said Friday it delivered 566 commercial airplanes in 2020, down 34% from the previous year due to the heavy impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on air travel.

During a conference call with journalists, Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury said he is “cautiously optimistic for 2021” and hopes to increase production this year.

Airbus deliveries last year far outstripped those of Boeing, which until year-end was crippled by its inability to deliver any 737 MAXs.

Through the end of November, Boeing had delivered only 118 commercial jets. On Tuesday, it will announce its December orders and the 2020 final tally — certain for the second year in a row to trail its great rival and once again to cede the crown of world’s top plane maker to Airbus.

Faury complained about newly imposed U.S. government tariffs that now affect the Airbus final assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama. Yet his central message was that, despite the massive hit to its airline customers from the coronavirus, Airbus has managed to steady its business.

Faury said Airbus forecasts continue to project that air travel will return to pre-pandemic levels sometime between 2023 and 2025.

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“But we remain humble,” Faury added. “Challenges and uncertainties remain high in the short term.”

Steadying production

After cutting production by about 40% in response to the downturn, Airbus in the third quarter brought deliveries into line with its new production levels, Faury said.

“From that point on, we began to reduce, slowly but steadily, our temporarily parked aircraft,” he said.

Airbus sales chief Christian Scherer said the steady alignment of production and delivery levels was essential “to keep our supply chain afloat and our global industry ecosystem alive.”

“Our current plan is fairly solid and doesn’t have any [production] gaps for unallocated aircraft,” Scherer said.

Faury said Airbus still hopes to increase production of the A320 single-aisle jet family in the second half of this year from 40 jets per month to about 47 per month, and expects further ramp-ups in 2022 and 2023.

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In 2020, Chinese customers took 18% of all Airbus deliveries, with half of those rolling out of its final assembly plant in Tianjin, China.

And because of global travel restrictions that made it difficult for airline officials to travel and pick up new airplanes, Scherer said, more than a quarter of the Airbus deliveries were completed as entirely virtual transactions.

Before the aircraft were flown out, the massive amount of financial, technical and certification data involved in the delivery of new jets was shared over secure links with both the airline customer and the regulator for that airline.

On the order front, Airbus announced net orders for 268 aircraft in 2020, with 383 new orders from 18 customers and 115 cancellations.

Boeing in contrast, because of cancellations of the grounded MAX, at the end of November had a negative net order tally for the year: minus 1,048 jets.

Airbus won 64 new orders for its small A220 jet, formerly the CSeries, acquired for free from Bombardier and now built in Alabama as well as Quebec, Canada.

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The Airbus A320 family won 296 new orders, including 152 for the hugely successful largest model, the A321neo.

And of those, 37 orders were for the upcoming new longer-range model, the A321XLR, which is on track to enter service in 2023 and poses a sharp threat to Boeing’s MAX.

Scherer said the XLR, designed to fly longer-haul international routes with more range and capacity than the largest 737 MAX models, is “uniquely placed for the recovery” once air travel begins to return.

In the widebody segment, Airbus won 23 new orders: two A330s and 21 A350s.

After 115 cancellations by the end of 2020, Airbus’ backlog stood at 7,184 aircraft.

Airbus in the U.S.

Faury noted Airbus’ 2020 successes in the U.S., where it delivered the first aircraft off a new A220 assembly line in Mobile to Delta and JetBlue.

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But he expressed disappointment that the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in December turned the screws on Airbus by ratcheting up tariffs on European goods.

The U.S. imposed tariffs of 15% on certain European goods, including wine, cheese and Airbus jets, in October 2019 as a penalty for European government subsidies of Airbus airplane programs.

In response, Europe in November introduced similar tariffs on U.S. goods, including Boeing jets.

In late December, the USTR widened the U.S. tariffs to include not only Airbus jets sold into the U.S. but also the large components of aircraft sent from Europe to the Mobile final assembly line.

That threatens to increase the price U.S. airlines pay for A220s and A320s assembled in Alabama.

Airbus delivered 13% of its aircraft to U.S. customers last year, with about 45 of those airplanes rolling out in Mobile, Faury said. He reiterated the Airbus position that a negotiated settlement is urgently needed to break the deadlock.

“What’s happening in the last weeks and days of this administration is just so unhelpful for the U.S. and for the world,” Faury said. “This is absolutely counterproductive and directly impacts U.S. jobs and airlines.”