Airbus Pulls Further Ahead of Boeing in Global Plane Rivalry

Airbus Pulls Further Ahead of Boeing in Global Plane Rivalry
Airbus Pulls Further Ahead of Boeing in Global Plane Rivalry

Airbus said Thursday that it would ramp up deliveries this year of some of the world’s most sought-after airplanes, bolstering its position as the largest commercial aircraft maker and pulling further ahead of Boeing as its U.S. rival focuses on the fallout from a major safety crisis involving its 737 Max line of airliners.

Airbus, the European aerospace giant, plans to deliver around 800 commercial aircraft this year, including the popular single-aisle A320neo, its main competitor to the 737 Max. It delivered 735 planes last year, more than it had originally targeted. This year’s push is intended to meet what Guillaume Faury, the plane maker’s chief executive, said was a sharp recovery in demand for air travel after pandemic lockdowns.

Airbus pulled in a record 2,094 commercial aircraft orders last year, partly on a surge in demand for narrow-body and mid-sized jets from India and other rapidly growing countries. That added to the company’s extensive backlog of 8,598 commercial aircraft at the end of 2023.

By contrast, Boeing delivered 528 commercial airplanes and recorded 1,576 net orders.

Airbus reported adjusted earnings of 5.8 billion euros ($6.2 billion) in 2023, a small increase on the previous year, on revenue of more than €65 billion. The company added a special dividend, on top of its usual payout, as its net cash exceeded €10 billion.

The company’s profit was dented by a large write-down in its space business, which Mr. Faury said Airbus was working to turn around.

But in its core commercial jet business, where Airbus and Boeing make the bulk of the world’s airliners, the European manufacturer is extending its lead.

To the extent that Airbus has problems, it is in meeting the challenge of producing the thousands of jets that its customers have ordered on a faster scale. To that end, Airbus plans to elevate production of the A320neo to 75 jets a month in 2026.

Boeing had planned to increase production of its 737 model to 50 planes per month by around 2025. But the U.S. company suspended its forecasts last month, as it addresses quality control issues highlighted by an incident in early January, in which a door panel blew off on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 plane shortly after takeoff.

That episode has rocked Airbus’s chief rival, sparking a U.S. federal investigation and forcing Boeing’s chief executive, Dave Calhoun, to focus on reassuring customers, regulators and the public that the company is prioritizing safety over profits.

The crisis has slowed Boeing’s capacity to produce more of its 737 Max jets. Boeing said that it had aimed to produce 42 Max jets per month this year, up from about 38 per month in 2023.

But the Federal Aviation Administration announced it would limit Boeing’s ability to increase production of all 737 Max planes until the company proved that it had resolved its quality control issues.

That setback has created an opportunity for Airbus to sharpen its competitive edge.

Its main headquarters complex just outside of Toulouse, in southwestern France, is a testament to how rapidly the company continues to grow. Airbus opened a new assembly line in Toulouse last summer to support development of the A321neo. And it recently cut the ribbon on a sleek new welcome center for its global customers, to prepare for a rush of deliveries in the years to come.

On Wednesday, as Mr. Faury and Airbus executives put the finishing touches on the company’s earnings announcement, two newly finished Air India A320neo jets, their tails emblazoned with the carrier’s yellow sun logo, were parked in slots at the new delivery center, just outside of a cavernous blue hanger where the jets were recently assembled. Other planes, for IndiGo and British Airways, were also ready for delivery.

Airbus officials were preparing a signing ceremony for Air India officials, and crews from the airline were expected to board later in the evening to fly the plane to India.

“We are delivering more and we’ll continue to deliver more,” said Jill Lawrie, the head of Airbus’s customer experience team, speaking on the panoramic terrace of the new building, where a cavernous hanger that used to make the mammoth A380 superjumbo had been converted to make the A321neo instead. “We’re growing and need to be more efficient and create higher capacity to deliver our planes.”

At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Faury emphasized the need to prioritize quality and safety over quantity, even at a time when the company is working to ramp up monthly production of A320neo planes to meet red-hot demand.

“It cannot be quantity over quality,” Mr. Faury said. “We don’t want to deliver a number of planes, we want to deliver a number of planes that are of high quality and safe,” he said. Mr. Faury emphasized that the company had a strong culture of risk management.

“The way to do it is to constantly challenge yourself,” he said, “to be afraid of what could happen, and think always of what could go wrong.”

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Jonas P. Jones

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