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(Reuters) - Boeing Co (BA.N) said it would increase production of its workhorse 737 aircraft to 47 planes per month by 2017 from 38 now, a surprise move that analysts said boded well for the company, its suppliers and airlines.
Boeing had already announced plans to increase production to 42 per month in the first half of 2014, matching current output by rival Airbus SA EAD.PA of its competing A320 jet family.
With the new target, Boeing would enter territory that Airbus isn't attempting. The output, from the same footprint at Boeing's 737 factory in Renton, Washington, will not only boost Boeing's cash pile, it will give the company more delivery slots to sell to airlines who want new, fuel-efficient planes sooner.
"This is a big, bold, but very strategic move by Boeing," that follows recent competitive wins by Airbus that likely have been "more heavily price-driven than in the past," said Russell Solomon, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service in New York.
He said Boeing can also be aggressive on price and now can talk with customers about new orders "with the very pointed message that they won't have to wait as long to get their greatly desired new equipment if they buy Boeing vs. the other guy."
Because of the high volume and relatively low production costs, the 737 and A320 are often seen as cash cows, and play a big role in funding development of larger and technically more challenging aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A350.
Boeing's rate increase was more ambitious than some forecasts. Carter Copeland, analyst at Barclays in New York, said he had penciled in Boeing building 46 737s a month around 2018. "I definitely didn't expect an announcement on it so soon," he said.
Just last week, Boeing said it would lift production of its 787 wide-body jet to 12 per month by 2016 and 14 per month by 2020 , up from a target of 10 a month by the end of 2013.
While Copeland said he didn't have major concerns about the 737 supply chain keeping up with higher rates, he said producing so many of the current 737s and the 737 MAX "would seem somewhat challenging on the surface."
He added, "I'm sure the supply chain is quite pleased as the 737 is a profit leader for essentially everyone who's on it."
Boeing Commercial Airplanes Vice President Beverly Wyse said in a statement that the higher rate would "lay a solid foundation as we bridge into production on the 737 MAX." [ID:nPn780Z50]
The company has 3,400 orders for 737 aircraft, including about 1,500 next-generation MAX models.
The 737 MAX will have new engines and other changes to make it about 14 percent more fuel efficient than current models.
Boeing said the first delivery of the 737 MAX is on track for the third quarter of 2017.
In contrast to the Boeing target, the chief executive of Airbus this week reiterated plans to hold its production rate of competing A320-family aircraft steady at 42 per month, saying the European company had some concerns about the fragility of the supply chain [ID:nL5N0IJ3S4].
Rob Stallard, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said Boeing's move "might give Airbus reason to accelerate" its production beyond the 42 a month.
Airbus' output for narrow-body jets is based on an 11.5-month production calendar, implying average capacity for 483 aircraft like the single-aisle A320 a year.
Boeing is based on a 12 month production schedule, though the company traditionally closes for the week between Christmas and New Year.
Stallard said the new Boeing target was "incrementally positive" because speculation about rate increases in the latter half of the decade may had have "fully baked in the ramp, and suggests that the current up-cycle continues to have legs."
He added that any rate ramp carries risk.
Airbus and Boeing both see demand for over $2 trillion worth of such aircraft over the next 20 years.
Reporting by Alwyn Scott, Rohit T. K. in Bangalore and Tim Hepher in Paris; Editing by Maju Samuel and Andrew Hay