Over the past several years, Airbus (EADSY -0.20%) has routinely surpassed Boeing (BA 0.75%) in terms of annual aircraft orders, driven by strong demand for its A320neo family of single-aisle planes.

However, 2018 has been a different story. Boeing has led its European rival all year in terms of order activity. During the first nine months of 2018, Boeing captured 631 net orders, compared to just 256 for Airbus. Yet after getting off to a slow start this year, Airbus bounced back with a strong October performance. Combined with a quiet month for Boeing, this narrowed the gap in 2018 order activity between the two aircraft manufacturers.

Airbus gets going

The main highlight of October for Airbus was the finalization of an order for 50 A321neos from Vietnamese budget carrier VietJet. This deal was first announced as a commitment during the Farnborough Airshow back in July. Airbus also received an order from Lufthansa for 17 additional A320neos.

An Airbus A320neo jet parked on the tarmac

Airbus continues to see strong demand for A320neo family airplanes. Image source: Airbus.

These two agreements made up the bulk of the 84 net orders Airbus brought in last month. That said, the aircraft manufacturer's sales activity in the wide-body market was more significant, given that Airbus already had a backlog of nearly 6,000 A320-family orders.

First, Kuwait Airways ordered eight A330-800neos, rescuing that model from the indignity of having no firm orders on the books. Second, Airbus booked an order for 10 A330-900neos from an unidentified customer. These two deals boosted Airbus' backlog for the new A330neo family by more than 7%, to 242 aircraft.

A slow month for Boeing

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boeing recorded very modest order activity during October. It received 18 orders, or 11 net of cancellations. This brought its full-year firm order total to 642 -- still nearly double Airbus' 340 net firm orders.

Boeing's most notable order for the month came from Indian airline upstart Vistara, which placed a firm order for six 787-9s, finalizing an agreement that had been reached at Farnborough. Each of the other deals it reported were for three or fewer aircraft, primarily 737s.

Big opportunities -- but major challenges as well

Looking just at its 2018 order activity, Boeing would appear to be cruising along, while Airbus is bouncing back following a brief order slump in the first part of the year. And indeed, there are good reasons to be optimistic about both companies' prospects. Global air travel demand is surging, driving aircraft order backlogs (particularly for the workhorse Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families) to record levels.

That said, there are also legitimate reasons for concern. There is growing evidence that a new safety feature installed on the Boeing 737 MAX -- but not described in the operating manual -- backfired and contributed to the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 last month. If that was indeed the case, it opens Boeing up to potential lawsuits. It also casts doubt on the company's design, engineering, and safety procedures, which could potentially weigh on future sales.

Airbus faces a different set of risks. Most immediately, its profitability and cash flow remain quite weak compared to Boeing's results. Different accounting policies and ongoing transitions to new models may be responsible for some of the discrepancy, but Airbus also appears to suffer from some combination of weak pricing and inefficient production. Longer-term, Airbus must reverse ongoing sales slumps for the A330 (including the A330neo) and A380 families, which have forced it to reduce output of both aircraft types.

It remains to be seen how effectively Boeing and Airbus can respond to these challenges. But at least they will be doing so against the backdrop of healthy aircraft demand.