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Airbus Pulls Further Ahead of Boeing in Global Plane Rivalry

by Isabella Walker
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Airbus said Thursday that it would ramp up deliveries this year of some of the world’s most sought-after aircraft, bolstering its position as the largest plane maker and pulling further ahead of Boeing as its U.S. rival focuses on the fallout from a major safety crisis involving its 737 Max line of airliners.

Airbus, the European aerospace giant, plans to deliver around 800 jets to customers this year, including the popular single-aisle A320neo, its main competitor to the 737 Max. It delivered 735 planes last year, more than it had originally targeted. This year’s push is intended to meet what Guillaume Faury, the plane maker’s chief executive, said was a sharp recovery in demand for air travel after pandemic lockdowns.

Airbus pulled in a record 2,094 commercial aircraft orders last year, partly on a surge in demand for narrow-body and midsize jets from India and other rapidly growing countries. That added to the company’s extensive backlog of 8,598 commercial aircraft at the end of 2023.

By contrast, Boeing delivered 528 commercial airplanes and recorded 1,576 net orders.

Airbus has also started work on preparing a successor for the best-selling A320neo, Mr. Faury announced. The new plane would be more fuel-efficientand would take to the skies by the mid- to late 2030s.

The development of that plane, known as the Next Generation Single Aisle, would put Airbus further ahead of Boeing in terms of cutting-edge technology aircraft. The plane is intended to burn around 20 percent less fuel per seat and be made entirely with sustainable or synthetic materials. Analysts said Boeing may not have the war chest to advance with new plane development as it prioritizes dealing with its quality control crisis.

Airbus reported adjusted earnings of 5.8 billion euros ($6.2 billion) in 2023, a small increase from the previous year, on revenue of more than €65 billion. The company added a special dividend, on top of its usual payout, as its net cash exceeded €10 billion.

The company’s profit was dented by a large write-down in its space business, which Mr. Faury said Airbus was working to turn around.

But in its core commercial jet business, where Airbus and Boeing make the bulk of the world’s airliners, the European manufacturer is extending its lead.

To the extent that Airbus has problems, it is in meeting the challenge of producing the thousands of jets that its customers have ordered on a faster scale. Mr. Faury said he had seen significant interest from airlines worldwide. But supply chain issues have made it harder to keep up with demand, a quandary for the company as Boeing’s missteps have opened new opportunities.

To that end, Mr. Faury said, Airbus is sticking with plans to elevate production of the A320neo to 75 jets a month in 2026, though probably not more than that for several years after.

Boeing had planned to increase production of its 737 model to 50 planes per month by around 2025. But the U.S. company suspended its forecasts last month, as it addresses quality control issues highlighted by an incident in early January in which a door panel blew off an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 plane shortly after takeoff.

That episode has rocked Airbus’s chief rival, sparking a U.S. federal investigation and forcing Boeing’s chief executive, Dave Calhoun, to focus on reassuring customers, regulators and the public that the company is prioritizing safety over profits.

The crisis has slowed Boeing’s capacity to produce more of its 737 Max jets. The Federal Aviation Administration announced it would limit Boeing’s ability to increase production of all 737 Max planes until the company proved that it had resolved its quality control issues.

Airbus’s headquarters complex just outside Toulouse, in southwestern France, is a testament to how rapidly the company continues to grow. Airbus opened a new assembly line in Toulouse last summer to support development of the A321neo. And it recently cut the ribbon on a sleek new welcome center for its customers, to prepare for a rush of deliveries in the years to come.

On Wednesday, as Mr. Faury and Airbus executives put the finishing touches on the company’s earnings announcement, two newly finished Air India A320neo jets, their tails emblazoned with the carrier’s yellow sun logo, were parked at the new delivery center. Other planes, destined for IndiGo and British Airways, were also ready for delivery.

“We are delivering more, and we’ll continue to deliver more,” said Jill Lawrie, the head of Airbus’s customer experience team, speaking on the panoramic terrace of the new building, where a cavernous hangar that used to make the mammoth A380 superjumbo had been converted to make the A321neo instead. “We’re growing and need to be more efficient and create higher capacity to deliver our planes.”

At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Faury emphasized the need to prioritize quality and safety over quantity, even as the company is working to ramp up production.

“It cannot be quantity over quality,” Mr. Faury said. “We don’t want to deliver a number of planes. We want to deliver a number of planes that are of high quality and safe.”

Mr. Faury emphasized that the company had a strong culture of risk management that included extensive training programs for employees and people coming “not just to learn facts and figures” but also safety.

Analysts pointed to pandemic-era policies as supporting that culture.

When the pandemic caused a deep downturn in the aerospace industry, Airbus kept most of its employees on partly paid furlough, reflecting a policy put in place around Europe to avoid a rise in unemployment and to help companies retain seasoned, longtime employees rather than losing them. By contrast, Boeing laid off employees and worked to rehire once business conditions improved.

To maintain quality and safety controls, “the way to do it is to constantly challenge yourself,” Mr. Faury said, “to be afraid of what could happen, and think always of what could go wrong.”

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