Airbus Reports Weak First-Half Orders -- But There Are Signs of Hope

Last week, Airbus (NASDAQOTH: EADSY) officially reported its order activity for the first half of 2017. As expected, it showed an ongoing downturn in aircraft orders. Airlines are still digesting the massive orders they placed between 2011 and 2015. Furthermore, Boeing (NYSE: BA) is outpacing Airbus in terms of orders this year, after lagging for several years.

That said, there are some signs that order intake will improve significantly in the second half of the year. Most notably, Airbus has announced a large number of commitments from potential customers in the past month; now it just has to firm up those orders before year-end.

The order slowdown hits Airbus

During the first six months of 2017, Airbus brought in 203 net orders for commercial aircraft. Most of those orders came last month, when Airbus announced 144 firm orders at the Paris Air Show.

As has been the case recently, single-aisle planes have accounted for the vast majority of Airbus' orders (177 out of 203). The A350 also turned in a respectable performance, with 29 net orders. By contrast, Airbus reported more cancellations than orders for the A330 and A380 families.

Boeing has gotten off to a much better start in 2017. As of July 4, it had captured 381 net firm orders this year. Furthermore, nearly a third of Boeing's year-to-date orders have been for widebody aircraft. This is important, because widebody demand has been fairly weak for the past couple of years.

Airbus is actually slightly ahead of last year's order pace as of mid-year. In the first half of 2016, it booked 183 net orders. However, the main air show of the year hadn't happened yet at that point. Airbus subsequently booked 197 firm orders at the Farnborough Airshow last July.

Airbus needs to bounce back

Airbus expects to deliver more than 700 commercial aircraft during 2017, compared with 688 deliveries last year. In the long run, aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing aim to sell at least as many planes as they deliver in each year. Otherwise, their order backlogs would eventually start to dry up, forcing them to slash production. Based on Airbus' current production rate, the company is behind the ball in terms of order intake this year.

That said, Airbus' A320 and A350 aircraft families both have extremely long backlogs and are sold out for many years to come. For those models, Airbus has a big cushion and can afford to maintain its production plans even if sales remain slow for a few years.

On the other hand, the A330 and A380 aircraft families face shrinking backlogs and have seen low order activity recently, as airlines have pulled back on widebody purchases. Getting more orders for those models should be Airbus' top priority.

More orders are coming -- but not what Airbus needs

The good news for Airbus is that it is in position to rack up hundreds of orders in the next few months. In addition to bringing in 144 firm orders at the Paris Air Show, Airbus also won commitments for another 182 aircraft -- 174 A320-family narrowbodies and eight A330neos -- from a variety of customers.

Shortly after the end of the commercial portion of the Paris Air Show, Tibet Financial Leasing committed to buy 20 A321neos. And just last week, China Aviation Supplies Holding Company signed a "general terms agreement" to purchase 100 A320-family aircraft and 40 A350s.

If all of these commitments are finalized by the end of 2017 -- which is far from guaranteed -- it would push Airbus well past 500 orders for the year. This would get it a lot closer to matching the number of orders to the number of deliveries.

However, 334 of the 342 commitments Airbus has received in the past month are for A320- and A350-family planes. The only A330-family commitment on the books is an eight-plane deal with Iran's Zagros Airlines. And the A380 jumbo jet continues to strike out. Indeed, since the beginning of 2015, Airbus has received exactly zero net orders for the A380.

Unless Airbus can rustle up some new customers in the second half of the year, it is facing a steep decline in its A330 and A380 backlogs. That's troubling, because neither aircraft family has an especially long order backlog today. As a result, further production cuts within the next few years are a real possibility.

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