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Originally published January 17, 2012 at 9:27 PM | Page modified January 18, 2012 at 9:55 AM

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Boeing may overtake Airbus as No. 1 jet-maker in 2012

Airbus has made more jets and sold more of them than Boeing for years, but an analysis shows that trend has a good chance of changing in 2012.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Airbus on Tuesday claimed the title as the world's No. 1 jet-maker, delivering 57 more planes and selling greater than 600 more airplanes than Boeing in 2011.

Airbus has made more jets than Boeing for nine consecutive years now. It has sold more jets than Boeing for four consecutive years.

Yet, beneath those top-level numbers, the picture is not so bleak for Boeing.

Analysis of the year-end figures reveals that, while Boeing delivered fewer jets, it surpassed Airbus in their dollar value.

Moreover, the data suggest 2012 could be Boeing's year to take back the No. 1 spot.

In the year ahead, Boeing is almost certain to lead Airbus in jet sales. And if production goes as planned, it also could squeeze past Airbus in 2012 deliveries.

First, the 2011 results: In a record sales year, Airbus delivered 534 airplanes to Boeing's 477, mostly due to faster production of its smaller, single-aisle A320 jets.

However, Boeing delivered 82 of its more valuable very large jets, compared with 26 superjumbo jets for Airbus.

As a result of that imbalance, a Seattle Times analysis using market-pricing data provided by aircraft-valuation firm Avitas estimates Boeing's total revenue from its deliveries at $33 billion, compared with an estimated $32 billion in Airbus revenue.

Looking at the value of the jets also considerably narrows the gap in sales.

The Seattle Times analysis pegs the value of the 2011 Airbus orders at $70 billion, compared with $66 billion for Boeing.

That's a 51.5 percent market share for Airbus, far less than the 64 percent share in units sold.

And what are the prospects for the year ahead?

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said jet sales in 2011 were skewed by the eight-month gap between the launch of Airbus' new single-aisle jet, the A320neo, and Boeing's response, the 737 MAX.

That gap meant the Airbus neo had phenomenal sales last year, with 1,226 firm orders, while the MAX barely got off the ground, with 150 firm orders.

Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell acknowledged this year's sales must come down from last year's high.

"Clearly, the neo is what drove that," he said. "No one expects us to have another year in 2012 like we had in 2011."

Boeing anticipates that the MAX will replicate the neo's sales success in 2012. Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said the MAX has more than 1,000 sales in the works, with one large firm order from Southwest Airlines and the balance consisting of commitments that are backed by deposits.

"One guy got all the orders in 2011," Aboulafia said. "The other guy will get them in 2012."

The only doubt in the minds of aviation analysts is that Boeing has not yet pinned down the specifications of the MAX. Birtel said several design studies are under way to optimize the jet's performance and economic efficiency.

Aboulafia said Boeing is going out on a limb with the MAX and is very dependent on the LEAP engine from CFM International delivering its promised fuel efficiency and reliability.

In contrast, the Airbus neo has a choice of two engines, hedging its CFM bet with the alternative geared turbofan engine from Pratt & Whitney.

Airbus' McConnell said the industry won't know how the MAX will match up against the neo until the Boeing plane is "more clearly defined."

Aside from the lopsided split of the single-aisle market, the most striking aspect of the 2011 figures is how Boeing dominates the widebody market.

The Everett-built 777 won an unprecedented 200 net orders last year.

Airbus' answer to the 777 is the forthcoming A350. Yet, that jet program had a net loss of 31 orders last year. Clearly, the aviation world has doubts about the A350 strategy.

In an interview, Boeing marketing vice president Randy Tinseth said the A350 was planned as a three-airplane family that would span the size range from the 787 to the 777. But he said that has proved impossible and the larger A350-1000 model now has a different wing, landing gear and engine, making it essentially a different airplane.

At a news conference in Hamburg, Germany, on Tuesday, Airbus sales chief John Leahy both acknowledged the 777's dominance and laid his hopes on the A350.

"I've got to give (Boeing) credit on the 777; if you need lift in the long-range widebody market now, that's the plane," Leahy said, according to Bloomberg News. "The day we deliver the first A350-1000, the 777-300ER will become obsolete."

Still, for the year ahead, Boeing will maintain its advantage.

Boeing said it can offer 777 delivery slots in 2015; the A350-1000 isn't scheduled to enter service until 2017.

While the 2012 sales picture favors Boeing, can it perhaps also catch Airbus in deliveries this year? That's possible, though it will be tough.

Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said Tuesday in Hamburg that he'll increase total production this year to 570 jets. Boeing this month has increased its 737 delivery rate sharply from 31.5 jets a month to 35 jets, a move that alone should raise its annual delivery total by 42. And this year will be the first full production year for both its new airplanes, the 747-8 and the 787 Dreamliner.

If Boeing at last can get 787 production flowing — admittedly, a big if — analysts are hoping that will add at least 40 deliveries. Full-year production of the 747-8 could add an additional dozen.

If Boeing pulls all that off, the company would squeak a win in terms of airplanes built for the first time in 10 years.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963


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