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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Airbus is pulling ahead as Boeing’s troubles mount

A Qantas Airbus A330 taxies to a gate at the Melbourne Airport in Australia on Sept. 22, 2023. As Boeing was trying to put out a huge public-relations and safety crisis caused by a harrowing near disaster, Airbus announced in January 2024 that it had delivered more aircraft and secured more orders than Boeing in 2023, cemented its position as the world’s biggest plane maker. (Abigail Varney/New York Times)

By Liz Alderman

Airbus cemented its position last week as the world’s biggest plane maker for the fifth straight year, announcing that it had delivered more aircraft and secured more orders than Boeing in 2023. At the same time, Boeing was trying to contain a huge public-relations and safety crisis caused by a harrowing near disaster involving its 787 Max line of airliners.

In the long-running duel between the two aviation rivals, Airbus has pulled far ahead.

“What used to be a duopoly has become two-thirds Airbus, one-third Boeing,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory in Washington, D.C. “A lot of people, whether investors, financiers or customers, are looking at Airbus and seeing a company run by competent people,” he said. “The contrast with Boeing is fairly profound.”

The incident involving the Boeing 737 Max 9, in which a hole blew open in the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines flight in midair, was the latest in a string of safety lapses in Boeing’s workhorse aircraft — including two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 — that is indirectly helping propel the fortunes of the European aerospace giant.

As the Federal Aviation Administration widens its scrutiny of the production of Boeing Max 9 planes, Airbus’ edge is likely to sharpen. Airlines are embarking on a massive expansion of their fleets to meet a post-pandemic surge in the demand for global air travel, and considering which company to turn to.

Shares in Airbus, a consortium with factories and offices in several European countries, soared to a record Friday after CEO Guillaume Faury said the company won 2,094 orders for new aircraft in 2023, the most in a single year. That includes the popular single-aisle A320neo planes, its main competitor to the 737 Max.

Boeing also reported more aircraft deliveries and orders in 2023 than it had the year before, but at a pace slower than Airbus’. The two companies together manufacture the vast majority of the world’s commercial jets.

Faury declined to comment directly at a news briefing Thursday on the latest problem with Boeing’s Max aircraft. “We are monitoring very closely everything that comes out of the ongoing investigation,” he said.

Airbus has had its own problems: During the pandemic it struggled with supply chain issues that forced it to cut production and fire workers, fueling a loss of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion). It settled a corruption inquiry in 2020 for 4 billion euros. And in 2019 it quit building the A380 superjumbo jet after airlines demanded smaller models.

Since the Jan. 5 incident with the Max 9, Boeing’s shares have slumped around 20%, as investors gauge how big a blow the debacle will prove to be. David Calhoun, the company’s CEO, had said he had hoped 2024 would be a comeback year. Instead, the company is scrambling to contain the new fallout.

Boeing said Monday that it would make changes to quality-control processes at its factory and at that of an important supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, which installed the plug for unused exit doors that blew out on the Alaska Airlines flight. On Tuesday, Boeing announced it had appointed retired U.S. Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald to assess the company’s “quality management system” for commercial planes.

While no one was injured, the Alaska Airlines episode revived questions about safety that Boeing had been working to address after two of its Max planes in Asia and in Africa crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people. All 737 Max aircraft were grounded worldwide for two years, which created an unusual opening for Airbus to swoop in and take more of Boeing’s business.

Reporting by The New York Times and others revealed pressure inside Boeing to compete with Airbus’ A320neo jet, a fast-rising, fuel-efficient success that caught Boeing off guard. Boeing’s decision to build the Max as a variation of the 737 because it would be quicker, easier and cheaper than starting from scratch affected the plane’s design and development, playing a role in its troubling history.

“Over the past few years the economic equation has changed in favor of Airbus,” said Philip Buller, an aviation analyst at London-based Berenberg Bank.

“The disruptions that have been affecting the Boeing Max have made it seem as a less reliable aircraft to have in your fleet,” he said. “So the merits of it being slightly cheaper go out the window because the Airbus is a more reliable plane that you can be flying as opposed to grounding it.”

The safety concerns have been costly in other ways for Boeing. The company is saddled with almost $40 billion in debt stemming from the COVID travel slump and the earlier 737 Max safety crisis. That has raised questions about the extent to which it will invest in future-generation planes as Airbus seeks a competitive lead, Buller said.

“If you have $40 billion in debt, and a plane that’s your cash cow is grounded because the door blew off, it’s a sign that management is not investing in the future, but firefighting today,” he said.

As airlines continue to ramp up post-pandemic orders for planes to build bigger and newer fleets, Airbus appears to be widening its lead. In two huge deals, Air India ordered 250 Airbus planes, and IndiGo, India’s biggest carrier, agreed to buy 500. The company reported an order backlog of 8,600 planes in 2023, compared with 5,626 planes for Boeing.

Supply chain issues have made it harder for both to build aircraft fast enough. Airbus delivered 661 planes to carriers and airline leasing companies in 2023, slightly fewer than it had been targeting but more than the 480 planes delivered by Boeing. Airbus is sold out until the end of this year for single-aisle jets, and through 2028 for its wide-body A350 planes, the company said.

With the global airline fleet expected to grow by one third over the next decade — carriers are expected to operate 36,000 aircraft by 2033, from about 27,400 commercial jets today — both companies are looking to turn up the volume for the long term.

Faury said that Airbus would elevate production of the A320neo to 75 jets a month in 2026, in a further bid to outpace its rival. Boeing plans to increase production of 737 jets to 50 per month by around 2025.

For now, Airbus is staying humble, at least publicly.

Three days before the Alaska Airlines incident, a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 was engulfed by flames after colliding with a coast guard aircraft while landing in Japan. The Airbus design and materials were credited with preventing the fire from causing injuries among passengers and crew members.

And Spirit AeroSystems, which made the door plug that was ripped from the Alaska Airlines Boeing jet, is also a major supplier to several types of Airbus planes. It makes wing parts for the A320 at a plant in Scotland, and central section panels at its North Carolina plant for the fuselage of the A350. Faury said Airbus was closely watching the U.S. regulatory investigation of Boeing and its supplier.

He played down concerns that the race between Airbus and Boeing to produce more in-demand jets in the coming years could hurt quality, saying that safety, integrity and compliance were the main pillars of the company.

After the Alaska Airlines and Japan Airlines incidents, “we are all very focused, each on our product, to understand, analyze and learn all the lessons,” Faury said during a separate appearance last week at a French aerospace gathering.

“We always ask ourselves the questions: What does that say about the precautions that we might not have thought of and that we need to think about?” Faury said. “To what extent could this happen to us?”

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