Last year, Boeing (NYSE:BA) got off to a strong start in terms of aircraft order activity. It ended the year on an even stronger note, more than making up for a lull over the summer. The net result was a spectacular year, as Boeing brought in 912 net orders in 2017.

Boeing's operational performance was also exceptional in 2017, with free cash flow expected to surge more than 30% compared with the 2016 total of $7.9 billion. The company's strong order activity puts it in good position to continue delivering steady free cash flow growth for the next several years.

Another stellar end to the year

In recent years, aircraft manufacturers have routinely made a big push in December to firm up as many orders as possible before year-end. Boeing didn't disappoint in 2017. As of Dec. 7, it had 661 net firm orders for the year. Boeing's year-end total of 912 net firm orders implies that it finalized 251 orders during the last 24 days of 2017.

A rendering of a Boeing 737 MAX 10 in flight

The new 737 MAX 10 helped drive Boeing's strong 2017 order activity. Image source: Boeing.

This performance pales in comparison with Airbus' (OTC:EADSY) performance last month. Airbus finalized more than 700 new orders within a 15-day span beginning in mid-December. However, it was starting from way behind; as of the end of November, it only had 333 net firm orders for the year. Furthermore, nearly all of Airbus' 2017 orders were for single-aisle aircraft, a category where supply constraints are a bigger limitation on production than orders.

Improvements across the board

Boeing's 2017 order activity fell well short of its order totals from a few years ago. Between 2012 and 2014, Boeing generated 1,330 net orders a year on average.

That said, getting 912 orders last year allowed Boeing to extend its order backlog, unlike 2016, when the company only captured 668 net orders. Furthermore, management had projected a year ago that order activity would be roughly flat year over year in 2017.

In another good sign, Boeing posted stronger order activity in all three of its main commercial aircraft programs last year. For the 737 family, it brought in 745 net firm orders, up from 550 in the prior year. For the 787 Dreamliner family, net firm orders jumped to 94, up from 58 in 2016. Lastly, the struggling 777 family made a nice comeback, with 60 net firm orders, compared with just 17 a year earlier.

2018 could be another solid year

Boeing's 2017 order activity provides ample support for its plans to increase 737 production to 57 a month by the end of 2019, up from 42 a month a year ago. Furthermore, based on the buoyant industry demand for single-aisle aircraft, 737 orders are likely to continue flowing in at a healthy pace during 2018.

Meanwhile, the improvement in 777 orders also means that Boeing shouldn't need to cut 777 output any more than planned as it begins its transition to the next-generation 777X. The company still needs to sell a few more current-generation 777s to complete the "bridge", but for the most part it can shift its focus to building up the 777X backlog.

The 787 family is the biggest wild card right now. Several months ago, Boeing announced that it will boost Dreamliner production to 14 a month, or 168 per year, in 2019. At that rate, it would run through its current backlog of 658 firm orders in just four years. Furthermore, only once in the past decade has Boeing received 168 or more Dreamliner orders in a single year.

A rendering of a 787-10 Dreamliner flying over water

Boeing's backlog of 787 orders has declined steadily in recent years. Image source: Boeing.

However, 2018 could be a very strong year for 787 Dreamliner orders. Just in the past several months, Turkish Airlines and Emirates have each committed to buying 40 Dreamliners. Both of those orders are likely to be finalized in 2018. Meanwhile, many early 787 customers have now received most (or all) of their orders, which could lead to an uptick in airlines that exercise options for additional Dreamliners this year.

Airbus may have beaten Boeing in the overall order race again during 2017. Nevertheless, Boeing did exactly what it needed to do, with balanced order activity across its largest aircraft programs. That puts it in great position to continue its recent run of success in 2018.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.