Airbus (EADSY -0.35%) has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic with much greater ease than top rival Boeing (BA 1.34%). The European plane maker has consistently delivered dramatically more commercial aircraft than its American counterpart, and its backlog advantage over Boeing has grown.

That said, Airbus' wide-body lineup has remained a weak spot: particularly the A330neo. Fortunately, the company landed a new A330neo order last week, which will buy it much-needed time to shore up its backlog.

A strategic weak point

Last year, Airbus delivered 566 commercial jets. Meanwhile, Boeing handed over just 157, as the 737 MAX wasn't recertified for commercial service in any markets until near the end of the year. While the 737 MAX has now been approved to return to service in 175 countries -- with China and Russia being the notable holdouts -- it hasn't helped the U.S. aerospace giant much so far. Airbus delivered nearly twice as many commercial jets as Boeing in the first half of 2021.

Airbus also has a dramatically larger order backlog. As of June 30, it had 6,925 firm orders in its backlog, compared to 4,155 for Boeing.

An Airbus A330neo parked in front of an aircraft hangar.

Image source: Airbus.

However, Boeing remains the wide-body market leader, although its advantage has shrunk over time. In the first half of 2021, it delivered 43 wide-bodies, despite a series of production miscues impacting its best-selling 787 Dreamliner family. Airbus delivered 39 wide-body jets during that period. Furthermore, Boeing has 821 wide-body orders in its firm backlog, compared to 775 for Airbus.

The A330neo -- which competes directly with Boeing's 787 -- is in particularly bad shape. Airbus ended June with 268 firm orders for the A330neo. That may seem like a sizable number, but many of these orders are likely to be cancelled in the future.

Indeed, top customer AirAsia X -- which has ordered 78 A330neos -- is teetering on the brink of insolvency and plans to slash its order book. Garuda Indonesia, with 13 outstanding A330neo orders, faces a similar situation. Additionally, Iran Air ordered 28 A330neos but won't be able to take any of them unless the U.S. lifts its current sanctions. Aircraft leasing firms account for many of the remaining disclosed A330neo orders, but they need to line up customers to take delivery of those aircraft.

A desperately needed order

Last week, Airbus announced that German airline Condor had committed to add 16 A330neos to its fleet, replacing the aging Boeing 767-300ERs it currently uses for long-haul flights. Deliveries will begin in late 2022 and run through 2024.

A rendering of an A330-900neo in the Condor livery in flight, with clouds in the background.

Image source: Airbus.

Condor will buy seven aircraft directly from Airbus. These appear to be "white tails" that were originally built for AirAsia X and Garuda Indonesia. It will lease the other nine. While that won't directly lead to new orders for Airbus, it ensures that leasing companies will take delivery of some of the aircraft they have already ordered in the near term.

Staying afloat

Last year, Airbus slashed production of the A330 family to just two per month. So far, it has no plans to increase output beyond that level.

At this production rate, Airbus will struggle to make much (if any) money on A330s. But there's no guarantee that Airbus can sustain even a two-per-month production rate. In the first half of 2021, the aircraft manufacturer delivered just seven A330s: barely more than one per month. Finding enough near-term customers to keep production at a minimum of two per month could be crucial for protecting the A330neo's long-term viability.

In this context, the Condor orders and relatively quick delivery schedule will help in a big way. Between U.S. airline giant Delta Air Lines and Condor, Airbus has now filled at least half of its A330 delivery slots for the next three years (based on current production rates).

This gives Airbus a little bit of extra breathing room while the long-haul travel market recovers. However, the Condor order is just a start. Airbus needs existing A330neo customers to start taking delivery of the planes they have ordered -- and, ideally, to keep finding new customers -- in order to make its upgraded A330 successful.