Boeing remains competitive with its biggest rival, Airbus, even as Boeing faces one of its worst crises ever.
After two fatal crashes in five months, Boeing’s bestselling 737 Max was grounded two weeks ago. Chinese airlines ordered 300 Airbus jets on Monday — a big win for Airbus and a defeat for Boeing. The 737 Max competes directly with Airbus’ A320, which made up the bulk of the Chinese airlines’ purchase.
But Boeing and its 737 Max plane will make out OK in the end.
Most experts assume the 737 Max will return to its normal sales demand once Boeing comes up with a software upgrade in the coming weeks. Boeing believes that will fix the automatic safety feature that is the focus of the two crash investigations.
Last year, Boeing had 675 net orders for 737 Max jets, adding 13 new clients for the plane. That beat out 541 net orders for the different versions of the Airbus A320. But Airbus has about 6,000 A320 jets in its order backlog, compared to Boeing’s backlog of roughly 5,000 orders for the 737.
The competition between the two single aisle jets is pretty close to a dead heat, with Airbus slightly ahead, said Cowen analyst Cai von Rumhor.
“It’s a duopoly. Both are doing well. Both have a great big backlog,” he said.
The two aircraft makers fight fiercely for orders, but once an airline makes its choice of manufacturer in a certain class of aircraft, it’s not easy to switch. Training for pilots, mechanics and the supply of spare parts to keep the planes in the air mean the airlines would have a significantly higher cost if they tried to switch.
Airbus’ long backlog of A320 jets orders would also discourage a current 737 Max customer from switching to the A320.
Since the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, only one customer — Indonesia airline Garuda — has canceled an order for the 737 Max. The 50 planes in that order were worth an estimated $4.9 billion. Cowen analyst Cai von Rumhor said the cancellation was mostly a result of Garuda’s own problems: The airline was losing money and was seeking to delay those plane orders even before the most recent 737 Max crash.
Boeing is continuing to build the 737 Max at its previous pace of 52 planes a month since the grounding of all the aircraft. Airbus is building 60 of the A320.
Airlines pay about 60% of the cost of an aircraft upon delivery. The halt of 737 Max deliveries could mean a $5 billion hit in Boeing revenue in the first quarter, according to von Rumhor. But he expects almost all that lost revenue will be made up in subsequent quarters.
The cost of the fix and compensating airlines for the grounded planes will leave more of an impact — about $2 billion after insurance, he said. But he doesn’t think there will be long-term damage to the sales from the current crisis.
The large Airbus order from China was probably in the works for at least six months, maybe as much of the year, von Rumohr estimates. That means talks on the sale started even before the first 737 Max crash of a Lion Air jet in late October.
He believes the timing of the sales is more about the politics of China’s ongoing trade talks with the Trump administration than anything else. He pointed out that China was the first country to ground the Boeing jets after the Ethiopian airlines crash. It also pulled the 737 Max airworthiness certificate from the 737 Max on Tuesday, even though the planes were already grounded.
“I see that as a very politically motivated move. This is about China trying to get leverage in talks. This is the quid pro quo for Huawei,” he said, referring to the Chinese electronics company which has been at the center of the a separate dispute between the two countries.