Who's the biggest plane maker on the planet?

Judging from the twin updates we got this week on airplane orders year-to-date, it's Airbus over Boeing (NYSE: BA) by a mile. Yesterday, Boeing updated its year-to-date chart to reflect a seven-plane order from the U.S. Navy. That brought the Seattle plane maker to 545 gross orders for the year. Minus 110 cancellations, Boeing now stands at 435 planes ordered.

Impressed? Don't be. Over in Europe, rival plane maker Airbus has announced that not only is it beating Boeing soundly, but is widening its lead, with 1,372 planes ordered through the end of October -- more than three times last year's haul, and two-and-a-half times Boeing's gross number. Granted, Airbus has also received more cancellations -- 141 in all -- but that still leaves the company up 1,231 plane orders for the year, and outselling Boeing by 183%.

How'd they do that?
Much of the credit for Airbus' success goes to the firm's re-engined A320neo narrow-body airliner, a plane that's been winning orders left and right, from AirAsia to United Continental. (If any readers out there can tell me of an airline whose name starts with "Z," I'd be obliged.) Credit also goes to airplane leasing companies like AIG (NYSE: AIG) and General Electric (NYSE: GE). Better known for insurance and light bulbs, admittedly, both companies also house sizable leasing businesses, which have both placed sizable orders for Airbus' new plane.

Boeing's battling back, of course. Its newly re-engined 737 MAX plane, for example, is enjoying strong sales as well. But at the same time as Boeing promises investors that it probably has "several hundred" MAX orders en route, Airbus is able to state unequivocally that its 1,000th-neo order has already landed.

Foolish takeaway
These data points change every month, but while I suppose it's possible Boeing will make up the lost ground, at this point I suspect the race has been lost for 2011, and Airbus will close out the year with a large lead in orders booked versus its rival.

That's important because, as I've pointed out before, more sales doesn't just mean more revenue for Airbus. It means greater economies of scale. The ability to buy more parts in bulk. In short: higher profit margins. As one race winds down and we prepare for the rematch in 2012, Airbus has the pole position, and Boeing must be considered the laggard.

Can Boeing close the gap before 2011 winds down? Who will win the 2012 race to aerospace? Add Boeing and Airbus-parent EADS to your Fool Watchlist, and find out.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.