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Airbus and Boeing both published their 2021 numbers for orders and deliveries, and they win one each. But… it’s a bit more complicated.

2021 is over and as always, analysts wait for annual numbers, to gauge how the two biggest aircraft manufacturers compare. Of course, the last two years haven’t really been good yardsticks, as far as meaningful comparisons go. It’s not just the pandemic, either. The MAX grounding has caused ebbs and flows in both orders and deliveries. But there is still plenty to see in these numbers.

2021: Airbus Wins On Deliveries, Boeing (?) On Orders

Photo: Air Canada

First, let’s look at 2021 deliveries, a field where Airbus scores a clean victory over Boeing… sort of. Last week we saw reports that the manufacturer beat its 600-delivery target, making between 605 and 611 deliveries – audit-pending. And as it turns out, the European manufacturer made 611 deliveries last year. By contrast, Boeing made 340 deliveries. However, it’s also worth looking at how each manufacturer improved over the previous year.

Airbus made 566 deliveries in 2020. Boeing had a year to forget, with 157 deliveries. But like 2021, comparing Airbus and Boeing in 2020 is largely an “apples and oranges” situation. Boeing could deliver no 737 MAX aircraft for most of 2020. But it could deliver 787s – that it couldn’t deliver in most of 2021. So Boing gets a “most improved” accolade for 2021 deliveries, but with some conditions.

2021: Airbus Wins On Deliveries, Boeing (?) On Orders

 

Airbus And Boeing 2021 Orders – But Which Ones?

Then we move to 2021 orders, and this is where comparing Airbus and Boeing gets even trickier. If we look at gross orders, Boeing takes the lead, with 909 orders, to Airbus’ 771. However, these numbers mean little, because we are ignoring order conversions and cancellations. But to compare ‘net’ orders, we first have to see how the two manufacturers define this term.

When it counts its orders, Boeing applies ASC 606, which is an accounting mechanism that discounts certain orders. This is because the manufacturer no longer considers these orders likely to be fulfilled. Usually, this has to do with contractual obligations. For example, when Boeing is unable to meet a delivery schedule beyond a certain date, the customer (i.e. the airline or lessor) can cancel the order without penalty. This is something we saw happen during the MAX crisis.

2021: Airbus Wins On Deliveries, Boeing (?) On Orders

Photo: United

Unlike Boeing, Airbus doesn’t adjust its orders this way – so its 2021 numbers don’t make such allowances. And there are orders that Boeing didn’t consider ‘safe’ in 2020, that it thinks are OK since 2021. Again, these are likely to be 737 MAX orders. And since this is the manufacturer’s biggest seller (by some margin), its reentry to service has a big effect on its orders total.

 

Actual Numbers?

So, if we look at 2021 gross orders minus cancellations or conversions, Airbus beats Boeing – although it’s close. Airbus stands at 507, while Boeing is at 479. However, if we ‘restore’ Boeing’s previously uncertain orders, the American manufacturer jumps to 535 orders. And since Airbus makes no such accounting adjustment, it’s only fair to give this one to Boeing.

Airbus’ “blockbuster” Qantas and KLM orders will count towards the 2022 total. Photo: Airbus via Air France-KLM

But again, this doesn’t tell the full story. Boeing’s fortunes still have a number of variables, that could throw it off-course. The manufacturer still has serious delays in its upcoming 777X program. The 787 still awaits FAA approval, to recommence deliveries. And if this drags on longer, it could make some 787 orders uncertain, per Boeing’s accounting rules.

Putting 2021 behind them, Airbus and Boeing also have to think about possible future programs. Here Airbus can probably afford to wait, as its range of jets is more “settled” than Boeing’s. A stretch A220 is perhaps a possibility for the European manufacturer, with a composite re-wing for other designs being a longer-term proposition. But this really depends on Boeing’s next move. After it launches the all-but-launched 777X freighter, that is.

2021: Airbus Wins On Deliveries, Boeing (?) On Orders

Image: Air France

But Boeing has other immediate concerns. It still needs to certify the 737-7 and 737-10 variants of the MAX, with the smaller of the two due in the coming months. But again, solving the 787’s issues becomes more pressing, as airlines come closer to retiring older widebodies.

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