Airbus order surge lifts cash-rich EADS

By Tim Hepher and Jens Hack

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Airbus parent EADS <EAD.PA> returned to profit in 2010 and bagged a slew of new aircraft orders, boosting its shares even as airline customers fret about a massive surge in oil prices.

Down payments from airlines rushing to meet growth in emerging markets helped to swell EADS's coffers by more than 2 billion euros ($2.78 billion) and left it with a record net cash surplus of 11.9 billion euros, matched by an appetite for acquisitions.

"I think you will hear something on that in 2011," Finance Director Hans Peter Ring told journalists, adding that the company's previously stated target of 1-2 billion euros in acquisitions was "not a magic figure."

Ring told journalists acquisition contacts had been made "across the Atlantic," but declined to elaborate.

Chief Executive Louis Gallois said EADS would "probably" look first in that direction as it seeks to build a U.S. pillar for its activities alongside Europe and emerging markets, but said the Franco-German-led group could expand in Europe.

However, he noted that French defense group Thales <TCFP.PA>, which EADS once tried to buy, was "not for sale."

EADS, Europe's largest aerospace group, wants to expand its $1.2 billion U.S. revenue by about tenfold to help reduce its reliance on commercial jets and is under increased pressure to deliver on its strategy after losing a competition to supply air tankers to the U.S. Air Force.

Wednesday's results were put in the shade, however, by a $29 billion slew of commercial airplane orders in the previous 24 hours, about half of which will benefit Airbus with the rest scooped up by its arch-rival Boeing <BA.N>.

"The commercial market has seen an impressive rebound, especially in the growth-hungry emerging markets," Ring said.

EADS shares were up 2.9 percent at 20.41 euros by 1306 GMT, the second-highest gainer on the French benchmark CAC 40 index <.FCHI>, after earlier rising as much as 4.2 percent.

As oil prices rise, airlines are for now placing orders to renew fleets with more fuel-efficient planes. But any further dramatic increase in oil could stifle demand, analysts say.

"Oil prices provide a short-term pressure for airlines, but in the long term they provide pressure to renew their fleets," Gallois said.

Airbus won a provisional order for 100 A320neo jets, a popular model upgraded with new engines, from lessor ILFC.

EADS posted higher than expected 2010 revenue of 45.8 billion euros ($63.65 billion), up 7 percent, and operating profit of 1.231 billion euros.

The Franco-German-led group restored a dividend of 22 euro cents after posting a net profit of 553 million euros.

Analysts were expecting EADS operating profit of 1.236 billion euros on revenue of 44.681 billion and net profit of 500 million, according to a Reuters poll.

In 2009, EADS sank to a net loss of 800 million euros after taking provisions on delays to the Airbus A400M military plane.

After a severe downturn in 2009, commercial aviation is recovering faster than expected, driven by demand for transport to move people and goods as emerging markets expand.

But there have been warnings that turmoil in Libya and rising oil prices could pinch the recovery.

Brent crude oil prices rose 79 cents on Wednesday to just under $114 a barrel.

EADS said it would need to monitor developments in North Africa, oil prices and currencies.

For 2011, EADS predicted unspecified growth in revenue and said operating profit before one-off items would be stable, compared with 1.3 billion euros in 2010, before rising significantly the following year.


EADS reiterated it would deliver its first A350 airliner in the second half of 2013 but said the schedule remained "challenging." It reported progress in paring cost overruns on the A380 superjumbo where gross margins were improving.

Europe's top aerospace group faces potential embarrassment over its cash surplus as it wraps up a deal with European governments to rescue its A400M military plane with 3.5 billion euros of extra public money, some of which is repayable.

Investors are also concerned that the company's balance sheet is bloated with too much cash.

"It seems like a large number to be sitting on," Societe Generale Zafar Khan told company leaders in a conference call.

EADS officials said one reason for the cash increase was a rebound in financial markets, which had removed the need for backstop customer financing for which Airbus had budgeted.

EADS was forged from a merger of aerospace assets of France, Germany and Spain in 2000 and also incorporates aircraft wing manufacturing based in Britain. Its first decade was marked by bitter in-fighting and delays to its A380 superjumbo and A400M.

"We had the turbulence over the A380 and the financial crisis and now we are in a better position to look at acquisitions in a serene way," Gallois said.

(Editing by Will Waterman and Erica Billingham)