Between 2013 and 2017, Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) outpaced Boeing (NYSE:BA) in terms of aircraft order activity each and every year, thanks to the popularity of its A320neo family jets. As a result, Airbus' order backlog grew to be significantly larger than that of its American rival -- potentially supporting higher production levels in the future.
However, Boeing finally retook the sales crown in 2018, bringing in 893 net orders compared with 747 for Airbus. The aerospace giants' recently released January order results indicate that Boeing's momentum continued in the first month of 2019.
Boeing starts the year in strong fashion
December is typically a big month for aircraft orders, as the Airbus and Boeing sales teams race to complete as many deals as possible before year-end. Last year was no exception, as the two leading aircraft manufacturers received 570 net orders in December: 35% of their combined full-year order total. The typical December surge in orders often gives way to a slump in January.
That wasn't a problem for Boeing last month. The company booked 43 net orders, consisting of 25 for its 737 family and 18 for the 787 Dreamliner family.
Most of the 737 orders came from a single deal with the U.S. Navy for 19 P-8A Poseidon aircraft for the U.S. and its allies. Boeing also received nine orders for its popular 737 MAX planes, offset by three cancellations.
More importantly, Boeing secured 18 firm Dreamliner orders from one or more unidentified customers in January. That's a good sign, with the company in the midst of ramping up 787 family production to a rate of 14 per month. Dreamliner output has outpaced net orders for the last five years. This has steadily reduced the size of the backlog, which stood at 632 aircraft as of Jan. 31. Unless order activity accelerates, Boeing could be forced to sharply reduce 787 production just a few years from now.
A big goose egg for Airbus
On the other side of the Atlantic, Airbus did not record a single new order last month. After booking 367 net orders in December, it experienced a prototypical January order slump. To add insult to injury, Airbus reported 13 order cancellations for the month of January: five for the A220-100 (its smallest model) and eight for the A380 (its largest model).
The latest A380 order book revision came after Qantas formally canceled its remaining A380 orders. Virgin Atlantic and Air France have also canceled orders for the unloved jumbo jet in the past few years. Airbus is down to just 79 net orders for the A380, including 20 from an aircraft leasing company that has failed to find a single customer for the A380s it has ordered, despite years of trying.
Emirates' 53 A380 orders account for the vast majority of the remaining backlog. And with that carrier now wavering in its commitment to the A380, Airbus appears to be on the verge of cutting its losses and ending A380 production.
It's still early
Just one month into 2019, Boeing has already accumulated a sizable lead in the annual order race, with 43 net orders compared with negative 13 for Airbus. The 737 family's smaller backlog relative to the A320neo family is probably helping Boeing, as it can get planes to customers sooner (all else equal). The 787 Dreamliner also continues to gain market share as the preferred wide-body aircraft for a whole host of airlines.
That said, aircraft order activity tends to be clustered around the largest air show of the year (held in June or July) and the year-end rush. Thus, there's still plenty of time for Airbus to turn the tables on Boeing.