Airbus vs Boeing: making sense of the crisis | Data

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In our mid-year overview of the situation Airbus and Boeing found themselves in, we made two conclusions: first off, the whole COVID-19 pandemic was of secondary importance for Boeing, the 737 MAX crisis being more devastating. Also, although the situation did not look good for both companies, it was too early to call the shots: end of the year could bring a lot of developments, be it Airbus’ track of getting staggering orders in December or what was then an impending ungrounding of the MAX.

Now, when the year is over and the financial situation is clear, we can look back, evaluate “the worst year the aviation industry has ever endured”, and maybe make some conclusions. So, how did two largest aerospace manufacturers survive 2020?

It was not easy. Production rate was heavily inhibited by lockdowns, as airlines started cancelling their previous orders and plants were unable to churn out usual amounts of planes. In terms of deliveries – arguably the most important metric as airlines usually pay for their planes on delivery – 2020 was disastrous in comparison with earlier years.


Note Boeing’s problems beginning in 2019, with the MAX crisis that cut out one of their main streams of revenue. In 2020, Boeing deliveries were on the level of the mid-70s and Airbus delivered less aircraft than in 2012. 

Orders-wise, the situation was similar.


Although Airbus’ order numbers have a habit of fluctuating wildly, the year was decidedly awful. But this is just a part of the story. Both companies had a lot of cancellations in 2020. Subtracting them reveals Boeing being even in deeper trouble.


2020 marked the second year Boeing had more cancelations than orders. At the end of the year, the company’s backlog consisted of 4,997 aircraft ‒ a far cry from Airbus’ 7,184. 

In fact, in 2020 Boeing did not have a single month when the number of new orders surpassed the number of cancelled ones. A grim situation indeed. 


Airbus fared slightly better. Granted, it did not have the end-of-the-year order surge like in 2019 and 2018. It had to deal with large swaths of cancellations instead, most of them being A350s – including the 10 that had been ordered by the ill-fated AirAsia X

But the real story of the year is told by the deliveries. As expected, both companies suffered a huge downturn in April, with the first wave of the pandemic bringing the strictest lockdowns. But Airbus managed to bounce back in a couple of months, reaching a pre-pandemic situation rather quickly. It was not enough to bring the overall yearly situation to normal, but the company did not lose too much momentum.


For Boeing, the only relief was brought by December. The company was finally able to start releasing 737 MAX aircraft that spent almost two years in the freezer: a situation which set it for a rather strong start of 2021. 

But this was not enough to save 2020, by far. The financial situation was quite abysmal for Boeing: it did not have a single profitable quarter, while Airbus  got better through a combination of cutting expenses and increasing production output.


Boeing’s loss in the fourth quarter was immense, a result of all the factors that piled up in 2020. But at the same time, the company finally managed to solve some of them. Check this out:


Boeing’s revenue skyrocketed in Q4, surpassing Airbus’ – something not seen since the start of the MAX crisis. Shipping those 737s was expensive, but necessary step towards normalization. And there is a positive message in that.

Does this mean the American company finally passed the bumpy stretch of the road and is on its way of overtaking the European competitor once again? It may seem like that, yet as this case shows, it is difficult to make predictions until the last month of the year rolls over. So, we will have to wait till December 2021.

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