How Airbus retained title of biggest plane maker for fourth consecutive year

Boeing's plane orders and deliveries jumped in December but continued to lag those of its European rival

A British Airways Airbus A380-841 with registration G-XLEH. PA
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Airbus retained its crown as the world's biggest plane maker ahead of Boeing for the fourth consecutive year, thanks to its stronger position in the Chinese market, the popularity of A320 family of jets and regulatory issues that delayed the deliveries of its US rival, analysts have said.

Toulouse-based Airbus held on to the top spot in terms of new aircraft orders and deliveries in 2022 after it won 1,078 jet orders.

It had a net total of 820 orders after cancellations while its backlog stood at 7,239 aircraft at the end of December.

Airbus handed over 661 aircraft last year, an 8 per cent increase compared with 2021.

Boeing delivered 480 aircraft and secured 774 new commercial jet orders after cancellations and conversions while its backlog stood at 4,578 jets at the end of December.

Despite Boeing's strong performance in December — when it delivered 69 commercial jets and recorded 250 gross orders — its tally of orders and deliveries for the full year still fell behind its European rival.

“Airbus has won the race again, with Boeing's performance still subdued by the 737 Max troubles and 787 Dreamliner manufacturing issues. This will remain a factor in 2023,” said Richard Maslen, head of analysis at the Capa Centre for Aviation.

“Airbus is now in a position where it is close to returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity, with production building steadily — if not as rapidly as hoped — and orders returning. Boeing has more ground to make up.”

The two plane makers collectively booked 1,628 in net orders last year as the global aviation industry continued to recover from the pandemic on the back of strong travel demand.

However, they have faced supply chain delays and worker shortages that have hindered their efforts to boost production to meet airline demand for new jets with better fuel efficiency.

In December, Airbus said that based on a “complex operating environment”, its target of reaching “around 700” commercial aircraft deliveries in 2022 was out of reach.

In addition to supply chain disruptions, Boeing also faced regulatory and administrative issues that delayed deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner wide-body.

It also sought to win more orders for its best-selling 737 Max that was previously grounded for 20 months after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

“Airbus is in a stronger position because it did not have its narrow-body model family grounded, nor was it prevented from delivering wide bodies,” said Jonathan Root, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

“Airbus has a bigger narrow-body backlog because it introduced the A321 Neo sooner than Boeing [launched] the 737-10. The extended range variants of the A321 Neo also make it a more attractive model and Airbus started selling this model sooner than Boeing,” he said.

The European plane maker is also helped by the production of its A320 narrow-body aircraft in several factories, compared to Boeing's single 737 factory, with the geographic distribution giving Airbus an edge amid the continuing supply chain constraints, he said.

However, with Airbus saying that the first production slot available for a narrow-body is in 2029, this could lead airline customers to order more Boeing aircraft, thus closing the gap between the two in coming years, Mr Root said.

For now, A321 Neo sales are helping to propel Airbus ahead of its US competitor.

“Airbus continues to grow its lead because the A321 Neo continues to gather steam, particularly for transatlantic and intra-Asia routes,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Washington-based AeroDynamic Advisory.

While Boeing had a “very strong” performance in December, much of this came from the handover of existing jets, he said.

“In terms of new build production, they have yet to sustain the hoped-for rate of 31 narrow bodies per month,” Mr Aboulafia said.

By contrast, Airbus's production rate was 65 A320s a month before it increased to 75, apart from the production of more A220s.

“In other words, Boeing’s market share problem will continue to get worse,” Mr Aboulafia said.

Airbus has also continued to strengthen its presence in the Chinese market where it has delivered more than 100 aircraft in 2022 while Boeing delivered eight planes to China.

“Airbus has long held a stronger market position in China for short-haul aircraft and also has a manufacturing presence there, putting it at an advantage over Boeing,” said John Strickland, director of London-based advisory JLS Consulting.

“The US manufacturer is also a victim of the Chinese recertification of the 737 Max that has not yet been granted and is at a disadvantage from overall US-China trade and political tensions,” he said.

Outlook for 2023

Looking ahead, supply chain delays are expected to continue to affect both manufacturers in 2023, according to aviation analysts.

“The biggest challenge is delivery on schedule to airline customers. Both manufacturers have real problems and the current shortages of components will make it very difficult for them to deliver to plan,” OAG chief analyst John Grant said.

“We can expect to see many airline chief executives at various times in the year express their frustration at the two suppliers and the vagueness of their production schedules.”

Stanislas Duquesnoy, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, said supply chain challenges would pose a difficulty for Airbus as it continues to raise its production rates, although airline demand for narrow-body aircraft remains strong.

“Supply chain issues that affected Airbus during 2022 will continue to impact the company at least for 2023,” he said.

“Demand for aircraft from airlines, especially for narrow bodies and Airbus’s A321 neo aircraft remain very strong so that we are not concerned about the demand prospects for Airbus’s portfolio of aircraft.

“The company’s order backlog remains very strong providing long term revenue visibility.”

Updated: January 13, 2023, 6:17 AM