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Boeing 737 sales have dominated the first weeks of 2016. Image source: Boeing.

Boeing (NYSE:BA) played second fiddle to Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) last year, selling far fewer planes than its rival over the course of 2015. Partly, that was owing to a slow start in January 2015 -- a month in which Boeing sold a grand total of just five planes.

Well, Boeing's not going to make that mistake again.

Once more, with feeling
Last week alone, Boeing booked more plane orders than it did in all of January 2015. And on Thursday, Boeing expanded its lead several-fold. First, Thursday morning, the company confirmed the sale of 40 Boeing 737-700s to United Airlines. And just five hours later, we received word that the U.S. Department of Defense has placed an order for 20 new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft -- planes built on the 737 chassis.

Five hours, 60 planes sold. Not bad for a half-day's work.

The early order book
In due course, those Poseidon orders will make their way onto Boeing's plane order book in the form of firm orders for "737s." For the time being, though, they remain off-book, and the official order book looks like this:

  • 40 orders for single-aisle Boeing 737s
  • Six orders for widebody 777s
  • And one single order for a 787 widebody.

With no orders cancelled so far this year, these 47 gross orders are also 47 net orders -- and until Airbus reports its first plane tally (for the entire month of January, due out sometime next week), Boeing holds the lead in 2016.

What comes next?
That will be the big question for Boeing investors as 2016 progresses. Earlier this week, Boeing reported earnings that featured not only a small decline in revenues and a much bigger drop-off in earnings, but also a significant cut in the rate at which the company is delivering airplanes.

At the same time, Boeing's big sales push at the tail end of 2015 helped reverse the decline in backlog of planes awaiting construction and delivery. Pegged at 5,648 airplanes in mid-December, backlog levels hit 5,795 planes at last report. Now the question is: Will Boeing continue to permit backlog to expand, partly by cutting delivery rates, partly by adding new planes to the pipeline?

Or will the company resume working to whittle down the backlog, and get more planes in customers' hands -- and take more cash off customers' hands, before they get a chance to rethink their orders and perhaps cancel them? Will Boeing take a hard line on pricing, preserving profit margins but potentially sacrificing sales to rival Airbus, and allow the invisible hand of the market to thus whittle away further at its backlog?

This early in the game, it's hard to say. But we've got a fun year ahead of us, trying to figure out how Boeing will play the game in 2016.

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. 249 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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