Boeing overtakes Airbus in annual sales race

TOULOUSE, France Thu Jan 17, 2013 1:12pm EST

An Airbus jet of TAP Portugal airlines takes off in Lisbon airport December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

An Airbus jet of TAP Portugal airlines takes off in Lisbon airport December 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Rafael Marchante

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TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - Boeing (BA.N) re-captured the crown as the world's largest maker of passenger jets last year, overtaking Airbus EAD.PA for the first time in a decade as it recovered from delays on its new Dreamliner 787, only to face new problems on Thursday with the grounding of 787s over battery safety concerns.

"I honestly wish all the best to my colleagues at Boeing to get this aircraft back into service, because an aircraft is designed to fly," Airbus's chief executive Fabrice Bregier told a news conference on the EADS EAD.PA subsidiary's sales.

The world's dominant planemakers compete aggressively for a roughly equal share of the $100 billion civil jet market, though their fortunes have see-sawed in the past two years as first Airbus then Boeing (BA.N) racked up orders for fuel-saving models.

International regulators joined the United States on Thursday in suspending flights of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner while the risk of fire on lithium-ion batteries is investigated following two incidents in the past week.

The 787 is the first commercial jet to use the lightweight but powerful batteries, which discharge a large amount of energy to support an increasing array of electrical equipment on modern aircraft but must be shielded from the risk of overcharging.

Airbus executives defended the use of lithium-ion batteries on the company's A350 passenger jet which is currently in development, saying its rival to the Dreamliner is designed differently.

The 787 relies on electrical power rather than traditional hydraulic and pneumatic systems for a larger number of aircraft systems, experts say.

Boeing has said it is confident its 787 is safe but is reviewing the plane's design and assembly together with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Airbus said it remained confident of achieving the maiden flight of its A350 carbon-composite airliner by mid-year, despite problems with some suppliers including Spain's Alestis and fuselage parts maker Spirit Aero Systems (SPR.N) of Kansas.

EADS's shares were up 4 percent at 33.79 euros by 1315 GMT Thursday, the second-biggest gainer in France's blue-chip CAC 40 index <0#.FCHI>. The stock has gained around 14 percent this month after adding 22 percent last year.

Airbus said it had booked 914 gross orders during 2012 as Boeing caught up with demand for revamped medium-haul jets, selling exactly the same volume for one model alone.

Airbus had won the previous year's order race by a record margin and had been expected to draw a sharp response as the planemakers waged a two-year contest to win orders by offering airlines significant fuel savings over earlier models.

Adjusted for cancellations, Airbus had 833 net orders.

Gross orders stood well ahead of the company's 2012 target of 650 jets but compared with Boeing's comparable figure of 1,339 new aircraft, giving Airbus a market share of 41 percent.

Boeing led on net orders with 1,203 aircraft.

"What goes up eventually comes back down," said Airbus sales chief John Leahy, adding that Airbus had won 52 percent of the market over a two-year period.

In remarks likely to inflame competition with Boeing in the largest segment of the market, Leahy said Airbus aimed to keep "up to 60 percent" of overall orders for the latest revamped medium-haul planes, the A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX.

Boeing has signaled it draws the line closer to 50 percent.

The Airbus 2012 figures were closely in line with estimates of more than 900 orders and a market share of 41 percent reported by Reuters after a late surge allowed Airbus to narrow the gap with Boeing.

Airbus also confirmed it had delivered 588 aircraft in 2012, up 10 percent from the previous year and above target. But it was outpaced by Boeing's total of 601 planes delivered.

For 2013 Airbus set a target of more than 600 deliveries and 700 gross orders. Senior executives said they were confident they would continue to flatten out any volatility in deliveries by juggling customers and jets in the order book.

On specific models, Airbus missed its target of 30 orders for the A380 after the discovery of wing cracks a year ago shortened the life of certain parts and forced the company to come up with costly repairs. Instead, it sold nine superjumbos.

For 2013 it predicted a slowdown in A380 production to 25 aircraft as it makes the transition to a permanent solution for the wing defects, blamed on manufacturing and design flaws that were initially addressed by a temporary repair.

It expected deliveries to pick up above 30 in 2014, and officials said they should be able to sell 25 A380s in 2013.

Airbus exceeded an informal target of 300 current-generation A320 narrowbody plane orders as it strives to ensure production will be maintained during the switch to a revamped, fuel-saving A320neo version between 2015 and 2017.

The 305 "A320ceo" orders included a last-minute deal for 60 aircraft with an unnamed Asian customer.

Executives expressed confidence in avoiding any dip in production for their best-selling model -- seen as a crucial objective as the A320 family generates cash for larger models.

Airbus, which has accused Boeing of stimulating a price war to win deals, said it was satisfied with its own pricing. Boeing has made similar remarks about its pricing. Industry sources privately say recent competition has been intense.

Airbus said on Thursday it had increased the average list prices of its aircraft by 3.6 percent from the start of January.

(The story corrects Boeing's 2012 net orders to 1,203 from 921 in paragraph 15)

(Editing by James Regan and Greg Mahlich)

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