In recent years, airlines have typically gone on an order binge in December, as Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) rush to finalize as many deals as possible before year-end. For example, Boeing received about 200 net orders in December 2015, and a similar number just in the last week and a half of 2016.
This year is on track to have an even more spectacular finish. In the past two weeks, Boeing and Airbus have announced a number of big deals that will help them end the year with stellar order totals.
Airbus makes up some ground
Since launching the A320neo program in late 2010, Airbus has usually beaten Boeing in the annual order race. However, Boeing has held a big lead for most of 2017. As of the end of November, Airbus had only brought in 333 firm orders for the year -- well below the pace of the past few years. By contrast, Boeing had racked up 661 net firm orders by Dec. 7.
Airbus started catching up in mid-December. First, it beat out Boeing in a highly publicized competition to upgrade Delta Air Lines' narrow-body fleet, winning a firm order for 100 A321neos on Dec. 14.
A week later, Airbus announced two more sizable orders. Turkey's Pegasus Airlines topped off its order book with a firm order for 25 A321neos. Meanwhile, Viva Air -- which operates budget carriers in several Latin American countries -- ordered 15 current-generation A320s and 35 A320neos for its affiliates in Colombia and Peru.
Boeing counters with one huge sale
While Boeing didn't get the coveted Delta order, it is also having a very successful month. On Dec. 21, it announced that it had finalized its largest deal of the year. Middle Eastern low-cost carrier flydubai placed a firm order for 175 of the 737 MAX aircraft, with an additional 50 options. This transaction was first announced as a commitment at the Dubai Airshow in November.
Including some smaller orders from unidentified customers, Boeing's full-year firm order total reached 844 as of Dec. 19, consisting of 685 737-family aircraft and 159 wide-bodies. That put it comfortably ahead of Airbus for the full year.
Airbus goes for a come-from-behind win
Airbus isn't conceding, though. On Thursday, it announced two more major narrow-body orders. Aircraft-leasing giant AerCap, which was already one of the biggest buyers of A320neo family aircraft, added 50 more A320neos to its firm order book. Airbus also finalized its biggest aircraft deal ever on Thursday, firming up an order for 430 A320neo family aircraft with Indigo Partners, an investment firm that owns stakes in several ultra-low-cost carriers around the world. (Like Boeing's flydubai deal, this order was first announced as a commitment at the Dubai Airshow.)
A day later, Airbus bagged another order for 50 A320neos, this time from aircraft-leasing company CALC.
Thus, in a two-week span, Airbus received a stunning 705 firm narrow-body orders, mainly A320neos and A321neos. Assuming that there haven't been any order cancellations during this period, Airbus has now leapfrogged Boeing, with 1,038 net firm orders in 2017.
Boeing still has Airbus beaten in one respect. Of the latter's 1,038 net firm orders, just 46 are for wide-body aircraft. Wide-bodies carry higher price tags and have much shorter order backlogs. In fact, Airbus already had nearly 5,500 firm orders for A320-family aircraft at the beginning of December, but can build fewer than 700 annually with its current manufacturing footprint. Thus, the benefit from selling additional narrow-bodies is modest at best.
Nevertheless, Boeing can't be very happy about Airbus stealing its thunder. There are still a few days left in the year for the U.S. aerospace giant to follow up with some of the other customers that have signed letters of intent for Boeing airplanes in the past year or two. Even if Boeing can't retake the lead, it could still add to its order haul before closing the books on 2017.
Finally, it's important to keep things in perspective. Boeing and Airbus entered the year with relatively low expectations, as order activity had started to cool down in 2015 and 2016. No matter what happens in the next few days, 2017 has been a great year for both companies.