Boeing, Airbus finish '07 with 1,200 orders apiece

SEATTLE — At the start of 2007, industry observers figured there was little to no chance airlines would treat Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS to the same order frenzy the jet makers had enjoyed the previous two years.

But both companies have proved the doubters wrong. Each has won orders for more than 1,200 planes this year, with most coming from carriers in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, which have been expanding and upgrading their fleets.

"Nobody, I think, remotely thought you'd have this volume of orders," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of the Seattle-area aerospace consultancy Leeham Companies, LLC.

Boeing, which had already surpassed a company order record it set last year, on Thursday added 67 planes to its final order update for 2007, boosting its total to 1,213. That tally stretches through Dec. 18. The company said its next order update will be announced in early January.

Airbus SAS is expected to come out ahead, having logged 1,204 orders as of the end of November, the latest update available and well above its own record of 1,111 orders set two years ago. The Toulouse, France-based company is set to release its 2007 order total in mid-January.

"It's certainly a peak year, but it's not a bubble. There's genuine demand," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for Teal Group Corp. He noted that the ratio of aircraft in service to aircraft on order is above average "but not worryingly so."

The biggest driving force in the year's strong sales, Aboulafia said, has been orders coming from carriers in the oil-rich Middle East.

Last month, Dubai-based Emirates Airline signed a massive order for 93 Airbus and Boeing jets, including 70 A350s, a plane that's most often billed as Airbus' answer to Boeing's new midsize, fuel-efficient 787, but also is designed to compete with the larger 777. Other big orders have come from state-owned Dubai Aerospace Enterprise and Qatar Airways.

Another factor behind the order momentum: new technology. "The 787 and A350 both look very promising, and people enthusiastically sign on to get their place in line when new products are introduced," Aboulafia said.

Though the narrowbody 737 remains its best-seller, Boeing has won 314 orders this year for the 787, which will be the first big jetliner made mostly of light, sturdy carbon-fiber composite materials instead of aluminum. To date, Boeing has sold 765 of its so-called Dreamliner, touted for its fuel efficiency, low maintenance costs and passenger comforts.

Early supply chain and production snags have delayed delivery of the first 787 by at least six months until late 2008. Analysts say Boeing appears to have gotten a handle on the problems early enough to make a nearly two-year delay that saddled Airbus' superjumbo A380 unlikely.

The A350, which has gone through a series of costly redesigns, also will be made largely from composites. Airbus has won 276 orders for its A350, most of them this year, according to a November tally posted on the company's Web site.

Analysts, trade groups and executives at Boeing and Airbus have said they expect sales to slow down a bit next year, in large part because of high fuel prices and the credit crunch that's dragging on the U.S. economy.

The International Air Transport Association is projecting airlines worldwide will post a $5.6 billion profit in 2007 — their first year in the black since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sparked a global downturn in air travel.

Airlines are expected to do well again next year, but the association recently slashed its 2008 industry profit forecast to $5 billion, down from $7.8 billion.

"We're concerned that consumer confidence is falling ... in the face of a drop in housing prices and the credit crunch. That affects both consumers who buy leisure travel and businesses and corporations that buy business travel," said Steve Lott, a spokesman in IATA's North American office.

Though U.S. legacy carriers have made steady progress shoring up their balance sheets, IATA estimates they're still saddled with close to $200 billion in debt. That, combined with high gas prices that have forced many consumers to cut spending, likely will push U.S. airlines to take a wait-and-see approach, analysts say.

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