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2020: Airbus vs Boeing

Written by Ivo Gračanin.

Photo: © Avioradar
Boeing 767


The coronavirus has made the past year very challenging for passengers, airlines and aircraft manufacturers, albeit for the entire aviation industry. There has been a drastic drop in the number of passengers. Of course, if there are no passengers, there is also no revenue for airports, airlines and everyone else involved in the air passenger transport chain. Airlines are in huge debts because their fleets of aircraft stand in parking lots everywhere at airports around the world, employees have nothing to do but wait, and this all creates huge costs. Those airlines that run out of their financial supplies can live that way for a few months, while those that don’t have supplies simply seek help from the state or help from their shareholders. The only ones now profiting in air transport are freight carriers, the demand for freight transport is growing day by day.

There has been a massive number of layoffs in aviation industry, because if airlines want to survive, they face the worst option, which is to reduce costs, which ultimately means reducing the number of employees. With larger carriers, there are tens of thousands employees who became redundant overnight and are now on the street. In addition to the reduction in the number of employees, there is also a reduction in capacity, because it is no longer necessary to have, for example, 100 aircraft in the fleet, when only a dozen aircraft are enough for the current traffic. But as the current fleets are too large, a big problem arises as many airlines have had to take over new aircraft they had ordered in previous years, while planning market growth. Airlines in most cases are not able to take on new aircraft because they do not have the necessary money, nor do they need new aircraft. This means that aircraft manufacturers are now also aware of major problems. Manufacturers of course must show their flexibility and help carriers with delayed delivery, because if they now go to the forced charging for new aircraft and destroy the airlines in this delicate situation, who will buy their aircraft in the future when the market recovers? The aircraft manufacturers can now take a break and use this time to reorganize their production. This especially applies to Boeing and its 737 MAX.

There is a review below of the situation in Airbus and Boeing in late 2020 and early 2021.


A220 vs 737 (+ A319neo)

Boeing, prompted by Airbus' purchase of the Bombardier CSerie, saw that they were missing something in that market segment. Having nothing to compete with Airbus and its A220, they decided to start working with Embraer and buy a majority stake in their commercial aircraft division. Negotiations lasted about 2 years, but eventually Boeing canceled that potential collaboration in 2020. Embraer invested a lot of money in preparing for the sale, and in the end they remained short-sleeved. Perhaps it can be said that it is even better that Boeing canceled that purchase at that time, because they were preoccupied with major internal problems. With the return of MAX, the development of 777X, along with coronavirus, they were certainly in a difficult position. Virtually every one of their products had some more or less challenges, and the primary goal was to solve them. Buying Embraer commercial aircraft would bring more challenges to Boeing which could eventually lead to them entering too much of a crisis from which they would find it difficult to get out. But for Boeing to profit from that purchase, it certainly would. Embraer has developed the E-Jet E2 series of aircraft that would allow Boeing to put a highly competitive aircraft on the market immediately. Although the smallest of the E2 series, the E175-E2 is still in the testing phase, the other two larger specimens are in the airlines' fleets and are flying.

On the other hand, the Airbus A220 is selling well, from Airbus data for 2020 they still have to deliver just under 500 copies of that aircraft. According to many airlines, they are very happy with this aircraft. For example, AirBaltic has retired all types of aircraft (Boeing 737 and Q400) and decided to use only the A220. It is interesting that in Europe this aircraft is most often used on flights of up to 2 hours, while in North America it is very often used on flights of over 4 hours, which means that this aircraft is interesting for both long and short regional flights.

There have been many rumors and debates about whether Airbus will make a larger variant of -500 or even -700, but for now there are no confirmations from Airbus about that, but it is certainly an interesting topic. 

Boeing with its 737 MAX 7 should compete with the A220, but the market has opted to buy the larger 737-8 or the A220. A similar story is with the Airbus A319neo, the market simply does not see the potential in the A319neo and 737-7, each of these aircraft managed to collect just over fifty orders.

We can say that Boeing in this segment does not have the right answer to the A220 and has simply left that market to Airbus and other aircraft manufacturers.


A320 vs 737

In 2020, Boeing managed to return its 737 MAX aircraft to regular operations after the catastrophic accidents of Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air. Following these accidents, the civil aviation agencies decided to ground the aircraft until the deficiencies that led to the accidents were rectified. The 737 MAX has been grounded for a year and a half, and to date not all countries have approved the flight of that aircraft in their airspace. Approval is expected in the coming months. Due to omissions in the initial certification of 737 MAX that led to accidents, MAX is now tested to the "last screw", and as such, we can consider it very safe, because neither Boeing nor other actors in the certification want to experience any embarrassment again.

Boeing still managed to deliver 43 of 737 MAX aircraft in 2020, but in the coming months and even years, great challenges await them with the resumption of deliveries and increased production.

As for orders for individual versions of the 737 MAX, Boeing does not list them individually in its reports, but as a whole series of aircraft.

Airbus on the other hand has lower successes with its A320neo series, especially with the A321neo aircraft. Airbus offered a longer-range version where the A321XLR has a range of 8,700 kilometers, where it broke into the narrow-body aircraft segment that can be used on longhaul flights. The Boeing 757 aircraft has ruled here so far, but as the aircraft in question ceased production in 2004, no aircraft of similar range and capacity was offered on the market. Airbus added additional fuel tanks to its existing aircraft, and with some minor modifications, managed to get a real small longhaul aircraft. Driven by the success of Airbus, Boeing offered a larger version of the 737 MAX 10 with a similar passenger capacity as the A321neo, but with a much smaller range. Many airlines buy the A321XLR to fly with it on routes that do not have a large number of passengers, and on routes that are just opening to "feel the market" at a lower cost. Also, these aircraft can always be used on short flights in the breaks between long flights. For example, the A321XLR will allow airlines that have so far not flown on longhaul flights to launch them, most expected to fly between Europe and North America, and in Asia. The A321XLR is not yet available, the first aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2023. By then Airbus is delivering the A321LR, an aircraft with a 1300 km shorter range than the XLR, but again a very interesting aircraft to many carriers. With the A321LR, airlines like Air Transat, Aer Lingus, Azores Airlines, TAP Air Portugal fly on flights across the Atlantic Ocean connecting Europe with destinations in North America, while TAP flies all the way to Brazil.

In 2020, Airbus delivered 431 aircraft from the A320 series, which is approximately 200 fewer aircraft than in the previous year, but despite all the challenges in 2020, they managed to deliver an enviable number of aircraft.

In this category in 2021 the safe winner is Airbus, Boeing has yet to regain everyone's confidence in the 737 MAX, start production and deliveries.


Airbus A330 / A350 vs Boeing 787 Dreamliner

The A330, A330neo, A350 and 787 aircraft became in a short time the foundation of most airlines for their longhaul flights. These aircraft are very economical, consume little fuel and most importantly have a relatively small passenger capacity compared to the Airbus A380, Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 747. An aircraft with a capacity of about 250-350 seats is ideal in the time of the pandemic when a small number of passengers travels due to various restrictions when entering states. Because of that, whoever had those planes in the fleet profited. For example, Lufthansa withdrew several of its A350-900s from Munich to Frankfurt to fly with them on longhaul routes, because its Airbus A340-300 & A340-600, Boeing 747-400 & 747-8, Airbus A330-300 are based in Frankfurt. As well as Airbus A380. Most of these aircraft are either too big at the moment, like the 747 and A380, or not economical like the A340-600. What remains are the A330s, also not very economical, and an already elderly type of aircraft, the A340-300. Most of the new A350s are parked in Munich, so they decided to move some of them to Frankfurt to fly some of the longest routes, and help reduce flight costs.

An example is also British Airways, which retired its Boeing 747, and KLM who the same. In this period of drastic traffic declines, everyone had to inspect their fleets, and throw out uneconomical, oversized and obsolete aircraft. They must turn to new and economical aircraft, especially on long flights, where there are few passengers and the cost of flight is high.

Airbus with its A330neo cannot be too optimistic for the time after the pandemic, with the biggest customer AirAsia X in financial trouble, as well as Iran Air. If these airlines have to give up the purchase, Airbus' order number will fall by more than 100 aircraft. This is not too bad when dealing with thousands of aircraft ordered, but the A330neo has been ordered in 331 units, of which 53 have already been delivered. If the potential minus 100 is deducted, there will be about 170 aircraft left to make if someone else does not cancel the order in the meantime. However, not everything was so black during the pandemic, the main star was the smallest aircraft from the A330neo series - the A330-800. Although this is an aircraft that "almost nobody wants", in the pandemic, two airlines have received them (Kuwait Airways and Uganda Airlines), with another new order arriving from Air Greenland. Still, only 15 aircraft of this type were ordered.

The Airbus A350-900 is currently the best-selling and most popular aircraft in the Airbus wide-body aircraft range. It can be said with certainty that this will remain so for years to come. By the end of 2020, 353 aircraft had been delivered, and there are another 394 orders in the order book (except for the larger variant A350-1000, which will be processed in the next category).

The Boeing 787 also proved to be great for longhaul flying during the pandemic. Although it also experienced some challenges, because it turned out that the quality of production is not at the level that would be expected from Boeing. But for now, there aren’t any major challenges that would land entire fleets, so Dreamliners continue to fly around the world. According to Boeing's reports, 47 copies of the smallest Dreamliner 787-8, 324 copies 787-9, and 142 copies of the largest 787-10 have been ordered, ie a total of over 500 copies of Dreamliner. Boeing wants to increase sales of the smallest Dreamliner model, as they failed to sell any last year, and in 2019 only 2 units. Although many airlines with the smallest Dreamliner have launched many new routes, many are now opting to purchase a larger 787-9 number.

What we can still expect in this category is a duel between 787-9 and A350-900. These two aircraft will continue to be the backbone of the longhaul fleet. We are still expecting sales improvements from other aircraft in this category, such as the A330neo. But as there will now be a large number of aircraft on the market that have been returned to leasing companies or airlines have been forced to sell them, we cannot expect a large recovery and a large number of longhaul aircraft sold.


Airbus A380 vs Boeing 747

The end! With this we can begin the introduction to this category of aircraft.

This group includes the aviation icons Airbus A380 and Boeing 747. The Boeing 747 remained on the market for more than 50 years, and initially launched an avalanche of longhaul flights. The Airbus A380 has only recently come to life, and made a small revolution in terms of flying luxury, where showers, bars, apartments, etc. were presented. But these planes will continue to fly, possibly for the next ten or twenty years, however in smaller numbers. Boeing recently concluded the last sale of the 747-8F aircraft, ie the cargo version of the aircraft, and the last aircraft will leave the factory in 2022, after which production will be shut down. The passenger version is delivered in 47 copies and on commercial flights it flies only for Lufthansa, Air China and Korean Air. The cargo version has achieved very good success and the aircraft is very popular among cargo carriers, especially now in times when additional space is needed to transport cargo, it serves as the backbone of the fleet.

What to say about the A380. This plane really has no luck. Although Airbus has tried to offer the A380plus with reduced fuel consumption to the market with some minor modifications, no one has decided to buy it in the last few years, on the contrary, day by day the carriers decide to remove the aircraft from the fleet. Air France, Lufthansa, Qatar, HiFly are just some of them who have grounded their A380s and decided to retire them completely or save them for some better times. The only carrier that still actively uses them is Emirates. Their strategy in the coming future is based on that aircraft, so we will still have the opportunity to fly on it.

In the end we can only say that the days are numbered for this aviation category. The last copies of the new aircraft leave the factories, production is closed, and passenger aircraft are withdrawn from service. But in the end, Boeing 747 will outlive the A380, as airlines will certainly use them in the future, while how long the A380 will fly in the sky will most likely depend only on Emirates.


Airbus A350 vs Boeing 777X (and 777 classic)

At the time of the pandemic, the Boeing 777-300ER was given a special role by many carriers, becoming an aircraft intended for the transport of cargo. In addition to the cargo space, the cargo is also transported in the passenger cabin located between the seats. Although such a mode of transport creates additional costs due to the higher required amount of labor that must unload that load. As there is a lack of capacity in air transport and as urgent transport is always needed, this is no problem. As a result, many airlines that were primarily engaged in passenger transportation now generate very large additional revenues on such cargo flights (with any aircraft from their fleet).

Boeing is developing the 777X aircraft, the successor to a very successful 777 classic series, and according to the latest information, the first aircraft should be delivered by the end of 2023. Although this aircraft should have already be in commercial use, development has dragged on a bit. Boeing will have two versions of the 777X aircraft, namely the 777-8 which has smaller capacity with a longer range intended for the longest routes, while the 777-9 has a larger passenger capacity. Boeing currently holds 309 ordered 777X aircraft, the vast majority of which are 777-9. The small number of 777-8s ordered brings into question what will Boeing do with that aircraft, continue production or perhaps even give it up. But if we look at who ordered the 777X, we can say that, already at the start, a few are under a big question mark. These are the orders from Etihad, which is currently in the consolidation phase due to losses in recent years, as well as Cathay Pacific. The largest order came from Emirates, and it takes almost 1/3 of all ordered aircraft from the 777X series, and there is also Qatar with 60 orders. Depending on the market recovery we can expect some new orders of that aircraft and takeover of existing orders. The challenge with this aircraft is its size, according to Boeing specifications the 777-9 capacity is 426 seats distributed in two classes. The market trend even before the pandemic was the use of smaller aircraft with smaller capacity. Many airlines have complained that their problem is filling the A380. The 777-9 is slightly smaller, but again with a large capacity, which also means potential problems in filling the aircraft. Many airlines own over 800 777-300ER aircraft in their fleets, and although these aircraft are still mostly with a few years in service on their backs, some airlines will certainly use the 777X as a replacement.

With discontinuing of production, the Airbus has the A350-1000 as the largest passenger aircraft. Its capacity is slightly less than the 777X, although rumors were circulating that Airbus would offer an extended variant and have a similar capacity as the 777-9, but this did not happen. The -1000 is still the largest model. It was ordered in 168 copies, while the smaller version of the A350-900 is much more popular.

The future of this category largely depends on improving market conditions, especially on intercontinental flights between major world hubs. Large capacity is an aggravating circumstance for most airlines, and they will therefore base their fleets more on smaller capacity aircraft such as the A350-900, A330neo or 787.