MIAMI — For Airbus and Boeing, as with many storied institutions in the Western world, 2016 was a year of roiling change and relative decline.
Objectively speaking, 731 net orders for Airbus and 668 for Boeing isn’t a terrible outcome by any means, but it is the slowest pace of orders since the global financial crisis of 2009 and 2010 for the world’s two biggest aircraft manufacturers.
In eight of the eleven years since 2005’s order boom, one of Airbus or Boeing has recorded at least 1000 net orders for the year, and against that historical track record, 2016’s sales feel low.
Airbus order track record continues to outstrip that of Boeing
For the year, Airbus sold 46 A320ceo family jets, 561 A320neo family planes, 41 A330ceo family plane, 42 A330neo family planes, and 41 A350 family planes. On the other hand, Boeing sold 16 737 NextGeneration family planes, 534 737 MAX family jets, 17 747-8s, 26 767s, 17 777s, and 58 787s.
Once again, as has been the case for the last several years, Airbus beat Boeing’s net order total in both categories, with 125 widebodies against 118 for Boeing, and 607 narrowbodies.
The A320neo’s sales dominance continuing unabated, despite having less availability than the 737 MAX. As in 2015, the specifically dominant product battle for Airbus was the A321neo over the 737 MAX 9, as Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 in fact outsold the core A320neo outright.
On the widebody side, the challenge with head-to-head comparisons is that there’s a lot of inter-family crossover. For example, the 787-8 competes with the A330-800, while the 787-9 competes with both the A330-900 and the A350-900. Accordingly, cross-product line comparisons aggregating widebody orders at the lower end tend to be more fruitful.
The A330 and A350 outsold the 767, 777, and 787 by about 20% in 2016, and that was a function of availability (the 787 is a better plane than the A330ceo and neo, but these are available much earlier), pricing (thanks to the lower exchange rate of the Euro), and really to an extent product-market fit (the 777 is too large and inflexible).
Boeing can take some heart in the fact that the 747-8 outsold the A380, and that Boeing’s hypothesis of the 747-8 being a better fit for the freighter market finally paid some dividend.
Airbus to retake delivery lead as early as 2017
The delivery side of the house is as healthy as always, with Airbus delivering 688 and Boeing 748. Airbus delivered 49 A350 family aircraft, 477 A320ceo family planes, 68 A320neos, 66 A330 family aircraft, and 28 A380s. Meanwhile, Boeing delivered 490 737NGs, 9 747-8s, 13 767s, 99 777s, and 137 787s.
First and foremost, the delivery rates don’t really tell you anything about the relative standing of Boeing and Airbus. If you look closely at the figures above, you quickly realize that the gap in deliveries for Boeing over Airbus comes entirely from the widebody jets, specifically the 787 versus the A350.
After years in the penalty box, Boeing has finally scaled 787 production to a significant plateau, but the A350 is gaining ground fast.
In fact, the combination of the ramp up of the A320neo’s production, good end of line sales for the A320ceo, and the A350 should just push Airbus over the edge to overtake Boeing in deliveries in 2017.
If it doesn’t happen in 2017, it will almost assuredly occur in 2018, finally ending the spate of confused headlines in the non-aviation press over whether Airbus or Boeing “won” the preceding year. Backlogs are also similarly tilted towards Airbus, who is at a record 6,874 jets while Boeing is more than a thousand planes behind at 5,715.
Has the bubble burst?
On the technical side of the house, 2017 will be a momentous year for both Boeing and Airbus, as the 737 MAX 9, 787-10, A319neo, and A330neo are expected to embark on their first flights, with the 737 MAX 8, A321neo, and A350-1000 all projected to enter into service.
Of note, if the 737 MAX is delivered on time to Southwest Airlines later this year, it will be the first major aircraft program from Airbus or Boeing since the 777 to go out with out a major delay or hitch (the 787, 747-8, A380, A350, and A320neo all experienced delays).
Even if the health of both manufacturer’s technical execution is as strong as it has been in a long time, there is still an open question around the health of their businesses. The current market capitalization and share prices of both firms are built around the notion of an industry where both manufacturers can sell a thousand planes a year. Do those excellent price to earnings ratios hold if Airbus and Boeing can only sell 500 jets apiece?
Characterizing the orders environment for the last several years as a bubble is perhaps a tad too negative – economic growth in developing nations, mass deregulation, and high oil prices were all reasonable justifications for buying large slugs of next generation airplanes. But we are now in a world with lower fuel prices, macroeconomic weakness across the developing world (especially in large growth markets like Indonesia and China), and trade retrenchment (which hurts high yield international traffic disproportionately).
That’s not a world in which it makes sense for airlines to commit to 75+ A320neos or 25+ 787-9s all at once – it makes a lot more sense to buy a few planes at a time as United Airlines has done with its 777-300ERs or American did with its 777-300ERs. And this set of risks doesn’t even take into account relative black swans like any Republican action against the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), a resuscitation of the Iranian sanctions, further sanctions on Russia, or Indian economic woes coming out of demonetization.
All of those would have a non-trivial effect on net orders and backlogs, and would be yet another signal that Airbus and Boeing, while healthy financially, are facing the most uncertainty they have since the global financial crisis.