With Boeing having halted 787 deliveries and 737 MAX deliveries ramping up only slowly, Airbus far outproduced its U.S. rival in 2021, making the European jet maker the world’s top commercial airplane company for the third successive year.
Last year was Boeing’s third mired in successive crises — the MAX crashes and that jet’s extended grounding followed by the global pandemic — that saw its jet deliveries drop from just over 800 in 2018 to a low point of 157 jet deliveries in 2020. With the MAX back in the air last year, Boeing more than doubled that figure in 2021, delivering 340 jets.
But Airbus delivered 611 aircraft last year. And for the first time in a decade, its advantage included the larger, more expensive jets — Airbus delivered 78 widebody aircraft to Boeing’s 77.
Boeing last year delivered fewer than a third the 253 widebody jets it delivered just two years ago. The new 777X won’t be ready for delivery until very late in 2023 at the earliest. With international long-haul air travel still at a very low level due to the coronavirus pandemic, few airlines are eager to take these big airplanes.
Beyond the lack of demand that hit both manufacturers, though, Boeing is suffering from self-inflicted wounds.
It is still struggling to convince the Federal Aviation Administration that it has a firm grasp on the 787 manufacturing problems that produced small but unacceptable gaps at structural joins and stopped all but a few 787 deliveries in 2021.
The FAA won’t give its approval to resume deliveries until Boeing can ensure that every plane leaving its factory will meet the specifications. One Wall Street analyst has projected that 787 deliveries are unlikely to get that approval until the third quarter of this year. Another is conservatively projecting a resumption only next year.
Airlines that have waited more than a year for their scheduled 787 deliveries are free to cancel their contract with Boeing. Taking into account outright cancellations in 2021 plus other orders removed from the official backlog as no longer certain enough to count as firm, the 787 ended the year with a negative net order tally of -33 aircraft.
Meanwhile, deliveries of the larger 777 widebody are averaging just two a month as Boeing transitions to the new version, the 777X.
Delays have pushed out certification of the 777X to late 2023 or early 2024. Heightened demand for the 777F freighter during the global supply chain crunch is the only thing keeping that assembly line in Everett going.
And yet, 2021 was a year when the aviation world did at least begin to show signs of recovery, however uneven and stuttering.
Domestic flying produced packed aircraft in the U.S. And bilateral agreements began to tentatively open limited international routes that had been effectively closed by travel restrictions, including some transatlantic routes.
Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said the partial recovery last year, following the steep downturn when the pandemic shut down air travel early in 2020, provides “confidence in the sustainable growth of air travel post-COVID.”
“While uncertainties remain, we are on track to lift production through 2022,” Faury said in a statement.
In 2021 sales, both rivals might claim victory
For Airbus and Boeing, the key sign of recovery is new jet orders. On that score, it was unclear which manufacturer came out on top in 2021. It depends which numbers you choose to count.
Boeing claimed 535 net orders for the year, ahead of the 507 for Airbus.
However, that Boeing tally included 56 orders that were not new. They were orders removed from the official backlog in 2020 when the downturn left airlines short of financing.
Under standard accounting rules, those orders were then too uncertain to be counted as firm. When financing was secured in 2021, those orders were restored.
Airbus could argue that it had more net new orders last year, 507 to 479 for Boeing.
Boeing argues that when those uncertain orders were removed they were counted as losses, and so now should be counted as gains in the recovery.
Airbus does not subtract similarly dubious orders from the net order tally it makes public.
Another twist: Airbus won a couple of large and important order commitments late last year that weren’t finalized in December. Defecting from Boeing to Airbus, Qantas of Australia committed to buy 20 A321XLRs and 20 A220s while KLM of Holland committed to buy 100 A320neos, both to replace fleets of aging 737s.
Those will be added to the Airbus order book early in this new year. On Monday, Airbus announced another commitment: Azorra, an airplane lessor based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will order twenty-two A220s.
For Boeing, 2021 produced positive sales progress after two years of negative order tallies.
In 2020, Boeing recorded a huge negative order tally of -1,026 jets, including both the dubious orders taken off the books and definitively canceled orders.
Many of those were MAXs as airlines pulled out following the prolonged grounding of that aircraft after two fatal crashes. They also included 777Xs, as airlines saw international travel crater.
A positive tally in 2021 of either 479 or 535 orders is a massive turnaround.
The huge demand for air freight provided a big lift. Boeing sold 42 of its large 777Fs and 38 of its midsize 767Fs as well as the final four jumbo 747Fs that will be built before that assembly line closes later this year.
Otherwise, the pandemic severely depressed orders for larger planes from both manufacturers. The Boeing bump in 777X orders was mainly the restoration of almost 50 orders that had been taken out of the backlog in 2020 as even the large legacy carriers who had launched that plane struggled with the collapse of international travel.
With domestic flying faring better, the MAX return to service produced repeat orders from Alaska, Southwest and United as well as new airline customers. The order for 50 MAXs in December from ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant, previously an all-Airbus airline, was a big win, a counter defection to those from Qantas and KLM.
Let’s call it about even for 2021 orders.
In the midst of a pandemic-driven downturn worse than any in aviation history, both manufacturers remain well short of sales anywhere close to where they were a few years ago. In 2014, each manufacturer won more than 1,400 orders. As recently as 2018, Boeing won just shy of 900 orders.
Still, with about 1,000 net new orders between them last year, they can at least glimpse what could be a recovery ahead.