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Boeing 737s in flight. But are they "MAXes" or NGs? Can you tell the difference? Source: Boeing.

Before we begin today's column in earnest, allow me to preface: Yes. Obviously, Boeing (NYSE:BA) will still sell planes in the future. Lots of planes. But even with that admission, an investor cannot help but wonder where have all the plane orders gone lately?

For nearly a month now, Boeing's weekly updates on planes sold to commercial aircraft customers have contained essentially no "news" worth reporting. The last time Boeing reported a big plane sale was at the tail end of July, when FedEx rang up an order for up to $9.4 billion worth of 767 freighters (or maybe it was only $4.2 billion, depending on how you count it).

Since then, we've seen just one new order posted in Boeing's online order book -- an "unidentified customer" buying yet another 767, in Boeing's August 13 report. And despite appearances to the contrary, this week's report is about as uneventful as the last three reports have been.

What Boeing told us this week
In Boeing's latest update on airplane "firm orders" received, the company advised that the past week has seen it book eight new orders for 737 single-aisle jets... and lose eight orders for 737s to customer cancelation. Ordinarily, we'd look at these numbers and shrug "you win some, you lose some." In fact, though, as Boeing has previously confirmed for us, when we see precisely equal numbers of a single plane type being ordered, and also canceled, in one and the same orders update, "it is almost always an NG to MAX conversion" -- a customer switching out orders for older model 737 NG jets, and replacing them with equal-sized orders for newer model 737 MAXes.

Boeing's order book page is not set up to explain a customer upgrading an existing order for one type of aircraft, to a more modern variant of the same model number. In such cases, Boeing's automated order book defaults to reporting such order "conversions" as equal numbers of cancellations and new orders.

So, in all likelihood, Boeing really booked no new orders for 737s this past week. Nor did it lose any.

And what about airplanes that are not 737s?
There was only one bit of news on that front this week, too. The proud future owner of one 767 -- presumably the 767 that was the only plane reported ordered in last week's update -- that had previously been identified as being ordered by an "unidentified customer(s)," has now been identified: It was FedEx.

So where does that leave us today?
Subject to the above caveats on order conversions, year to date, Boeing has accumulated gross orders for:

  • 279 single-aisle 737s
  • 54 widebody 777s
  • 50 Dreamliner 787s
  • 48 Boeing 767s
  • Four 747s.

In total, that's 435 "gross" orders for Boeing. That's nine more planes than the last time we wrote substantively about Boeing's order book. But, really, it's just one more plane. And if you net out 54 planes canceled, the net order tally is also up just one plane -- to 381.

The upshot for the orders race
Meanwhile, Airbus(NASDAQOTH:EADSY) gross orders hold steady at 408, its cancellations at 41, and its net order tally, therefore, remains at 367. This will remain the case until Airbus reports its next order update, due out two weeks from now.

Until then, Boeing holds on to its lead.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 338 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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