1,044 commercial jet orders for Boeing in '06

/ Source: The Associated Press

Boeing Co. reported a record 1,044 commercial airplane orders for 2006 Thursday, all but formally regaining the lead from troubled Airbus in the important sales category amid strong demand for its fuel-conscious 787 Dreamliner and single-aisle 737.

Boeing remained runner-up to Airbus for a fourth straight year in aircraft deliveries, the category that determines the world’s No. 1 plane manufacturer. It reported 398 deliveries, up 37 percent but short of the 425 projected recently by its European rival, which announces year-end totals Jan. 17.

Still, the Chicago-based company’s revived prospects, coupled with Airbus’ missteps with aircraft delays and management discord, appear to virtually ensure its return to the top of the commercial jet-making business by 2008, according to aerospace analysts.

“It was really the year when Boeing came into its own and Airbus essentially went through a meltdown,” said Phil Finnegan of the Teal Group. “You’ve got the combination of Boeing with a good, hot new product and Airbus fumbling with technical problems and other issues that no one could have expected.”

Boeing surpassed the previous year’s total of 1,002 net orders and came up just shy of Airbus’ all-time industry record of 1,055 last year. Its gross orders, which do not account for cancellations and conversions, totaled 1,050.

Airbus has been losing market share and trailed Boeing by a wide margin with 635 orders as of Nov. 30. Barring a seemingly impossible barrage of orders in December, the slumping plane maker will drop to second place in orders when it announces 2006 totals.

Since quadrupling the delay in production of its A380 superjumbo jet, Airbus and parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. have lost three CEOs, one A380 customer, a large potential order from another client and $6.4 billion in forecast profits.

Boeing, in the meantime, had orders from 76 different customers last year. In the last 10 days of 2006 alone, there were orders for more than 100 planes from Korean Air, Xiamen Airlines, Jet Airways, Air Berlin, Delta Airlines and other unidentified customers.

All signs point to Boeing’s momentum continuing, absent any unanticipated glitches.

“We expect continued strong orders in ’07 and ’08 as North American and European airlines begin to replace their aging fleet,” Merrill Lynch analyst Ronald Epstein wrote in a research note.

Scott Carson, chief executive officer of Boeing’s Seattle-based commercial jet-building division, said the company has built a well-balanced backlog of orders after struggling previously.

“The strong orders for the past two years are a validation of our strategy of focusing on our customers, simplifying our product and services offerings and transforming our production system,” he said in a statement.

Carson, who took over the job after Alan Mulally left to become CEO at Ford Motor Co., was credited with reinvigorating the company’s sales force as its commercial airplane sales chief from December 2004 until last September.

Boeing recorded 157 orders last year for the 787, which is due to enter service in mid-2008 after test flights beginning later this year, and a record 729 for its stalwart 737. It also had 76 orders for 777s, 10 for 767s and 72 for 747s, the highest total for that program since 1990. Eighty-one of the ordered airplanes were freighters.

Separately, Boeing reported reducing its work force by 2,356 jobs to 154,031 in 2006, with the majority of the cuts in California. But it has now added jobs for 31 consecutive months in Washington state, where it had 68,170 employees as of Dec. 31, reflecting the need to keep up with strong demand for commercial airplanes.

Boeing shares, which rose 26 percent last year, increased 36 cents to close at $89.53 on the New York Stock Exchange.