During the first two months of 2019, Boeing (NYSE:BA) posted solid aircraft order activity, while top rival Airbus' (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) backlog shrank significantly due to a slew of order cancellations.

Airbus had better luck last month, offsetting some of the order cancellations it suffered earlier in the year. Nevertheless, Boeing still topped its European rival in terms of net commercial aircraft orders for the month of March. This feat was particularly remarkable in light of the global grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX several weeks ago.

A solid month for Airbus -- but it's still in the red

In March, Airbus booked 58 orders, offset by 17 cancellations. Importantly, 38 of the 58 orders received last month were for Airbus A350s, an aircraft family that has faced a steadily shrinking backlog in recent years. That's in contrast to all of the cancellations related to A320neo-family aircraft, which Airbus has a backlog of nearly 6,000 unfilled orders.

The largest order of the month came from Lufthansa, which ordered 20 additional A350-900s. Airbus had to offer a big concession to win that deal, though, agreeing to buy back six of Lufthansa's 14 A380 jumbo jets between 2022 and 2023. Given the lack of a viable resale market for the A380, Airbus will probably have to scrap those airplanes for parts.

Airbus also finalized a second big A350 order in March, winning a deal for five A350-900s and 12 A350-1000s from Taiwanese start-up STARLUX Airlines. However, airline start-ups have a notoriously high failure rate, so there's a risk that this order will eventually disappear.

An Airbus A350 jet flying in front of a cloud

Airbus finalized two sizable A350 orders last month. Image source: Airbus.

Despite securing 41 net orders last month, Airbus still ended the first quarter with just 62 new firm orders year to date, compared to 120 cancellations. The European aerospace giant still has some work to do just to get its net order total for 2019 into positive territory.

Boeing keeps making progress

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, Boeing had another solid month of order activity in March. It booked 43 net firm orders -- consisting of 44 new orders, offset by one cancellation -- just edging out Airbus.

Like its top rival, Boeing benefited from Lufthansa's fleet renewal plan last month, capturing a firm order for 20 787-9 Dreamliners. It also finalized a second major widebody order: a deal to sell 18 777-9s to British Airways, which was first announced in late February. DHL ordered two 777 freighters as well, helping Boeing reinforce its backlog of current-generation 777s to ensure a smooth transition to its next-generation models (including the 777-9) over the next few years.

All told, Boeing booked 91 net firm orders in the first quarter of 2019: 149 better than Airbus' negative 58.

The rest of the year will probably look much different

Boeing's order performance last quarter was certainly impressive, but the current grounding of the 737 MAX -- its top-selling model -- will make it hard to build on that momentum.

Boeing has already developed and started testing software updates that should prevent a repeat of the two disastrous crashes that led to the 737 MAX being grounded. However, until regulators have approved the fixes, airlines are likely to shy away from ordering more 737 MAXs. Even after the global 737 MAX fleet gets back in the air, some airlines may choose to wait for a while to make sure there are no more issues before considering further orders. (That said, the Boeing 787's best year of sales in the past decade was 2013, the same year that the type was grounded for four months due to multiple fires sparked by its lithium-ion batteries.)

With the biggest air show of the year coming up in barely more than two months, Airbus will have a big advantage in terms of winning new business. Furthermore, several airlines have indicated that they may cancel some or all of their 737 MAX orders.

Thus, even with its big head start, Boeing isn't likely to beat Airbus for a second straight year in the annual order race. Fortunately, with a backlog of more than 4,600 unfilled 737 MAX orders, Boeing is well positioned to withstand a temporary downturn in 737 MAX sales.