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Boeing 'is set to overtake Airbus sales'

UK jobs threatened as US aircraft builder's boss vows to be on top for 'a number of years'

Boeing boss Jim McNerney has claimed that the aircraft builder will outsell fierce rival Airbus for "a number of years" having been No 2 to the pan-European giant for nearly a decade.

Speaking ahead of the start of tomorrow's Farnborough International Airshow, the most important date in the industry's calendar, Mr McNerney conceded that Boeing and Airbus's duopoly in the $100bn-a-year aircraft market could be broken by the Chinese as soon as 2017.

Any sales defeat for Airbus's owner Eads could hurt the UK, as around 140,000 people are directly or indirectly employed through the group's wing manufacturing work in Broughton, North Wales, and Filton, near Bristol.

Although Airbus has received more orders for its aircraft than Boeing for each of the past nine years, the US group has outsold the group by four times in the first quarter of 2012. This is partly explained by the impact of the fuel-efficient 737 MAX, which Boeing unveiled last year as an alternative to Airbus's hugely popular A320neo.

Mr McNerney said: "I think we will, in all likelihood, pull slightly ahead of them [Airbus], either this year or next... But, you know, over the years we've been ahead sometimes; they've been ahead recently. And I think there's a good chance that we will pull ahead for a number of years."

He admitted to some regret at not launching the MAX six-to-12 months earlier, as Airbus has "some advantages as the first mover" in the fuel-efficient aircraft market. Demand for these aeroplanes is on the rise as fuel prices soar and emissions targets spread wider.

Airbus and Boeing have been the subject of long-running trade disputes between the European Union and the US over state aid. And both have been found by the World Trade Organisation to have received billions of dollars in state subsidies and loans.

Much of this has been played out in public. Just last week the companies traded words on the matter, but Mr McNerney tried to play peacemaker ahead of Farnborough. He claimed "respect" for Airbus and said that "I never thought our relationship was particularly bad."

Eads has privately voiced concerns that the dispute has helped fledgling manufacturers develop in countries that almost certainly provide state aid, to the extent that the duopoly could be cracked.

China has been developing the Comac, which is in the narrow-body family of aircraft, the single-aisle model loved by commercial operators for their short-haul flights.

Mr McNerney said: "Some time in the next five-to-15 years, in my judgement, there'll be a legitimate competitor in the narrow-body from the Chinese."