Airbus SE posted stronger-than-expected deliveries of 566 jets last year, remaining the world’s largest planemaker as a year of COVID-19 pandemic-induced upheaval for air travel coincided with a grounding crisis at US rival Boeing Co.
Deliveries fell by 34 percent from a record posted a year earlier, when travel demand was riding high on the increasing mobility of consumers in fast-growing markets across Asia.
Now, the aerospace industry is wrestling with the reluctance of most airlines to take delivery of jets as they struggle to save cash and a drop in air traffic that Airbus says could take until 2023 or 2025 to regain the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.
Still, Airbus said it had delivered 566 aircraft last year, exceeding estimates earlier in the year when the COVID-19 crisis led to a lockdown of major travel markets.
“We can be cautiously optimistic for 2021 ... but challenges and uncertainties remain high,” Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury told reporters.
The planemaker declined to give delivery forecasts for this year ahead of full-year earnings due on Feb. 18.
Airbus sold a net total of 268 aircraft last year after adjusting for cancelations, down from 768 in 2019.
Hampered by the grounding of its best-selling 737 MAX, Boeing delivered 118 jets between January and November last year and had a negative total of 454 net orders before accounting adjustments, giving Airbus an unassailable lead.
Deliveries of the MAX, grounded in March 2019 following two fatal crashes, resumed last month.
Airbus deliveries rose sharply in the second half of last year compared with the first months of the crisis as Airbus made a push for delivery agreements with many airlines, in some cases allowing for temporary storage, according to industry sources.
However, Airbus said virtually all new planes had entered service, even though many were not being flown as intensively as they would have been before COVID-19 upended growth plans.
Faury reaffirmed plans to raise output by 18 percent in the second half of the year, while noting volatility over forecasts, with rising infections offset by accelerating COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.
Cancelations included 10 A350 wide-body jets worth US$3.2 billion at list prices from AirAsia X Bhd.
Airbus said it had taken the decision to cancel the deal, but questions remain over 108 other orders from the troubled Malaysian budget carrier.
Airbus has told a Malaysian court that it stands to lose more than US$5 billion worth of orders as it challenges AirAsia X’s plans to restructure debt.
In total, Airbus lost orders for 26 wide-body jets, reflecting a slump in intercontinental travel that is expected to be the slowest segment to recover.
With the industry’s main showcase, the Paris Airshow, canceled this year, Airbus cautioned that it did not expect a return toward big-ticket jet orders while travel remained depressed.
“It will be a while before we are back on an even keel,” chief commercial officer Christian Scherer said.
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