Boeing vs Airbus: US shoots down Europe in dogfight

But do the high-flying rivals' sales figures really matter, ask Mark Leftly and Nikhil Kumar

Standing before the world's financial media in Hamburg, a smirk on his face, John Leahy spread his arms wide and said of Airbus's dominance in the skies: "It's not my fault."

Airbus's top salesman – such a workaholic he was given medical advice, apparently ignored, to slow down after heart surgery in 2006 – couldn't resist a dig at the manufacturer's great rival of four decades, which he had beaten on the number of orders secured for the ninth successive year: "Boeing helped by not getting its act together."

Twelve months on from that record year of 1,608 aircraft sales, Leahy surely won't be so cocky next Thursday in Toulouse, when Airbus will admit defeat to the Chicago-based Boeing for 2012. Boeing comprehensively outsold Airbus last year, with commercial airlines making firm orders for more than 1,200 US craft against an estimated 900 for the European group, which is owned by EADS.

The press conference accompanying Airbus's results is usually a triumphalist affair. Most expect the event to be a touch more downbeat next week, which is fitting after a difficult year for EADS.

Most infamously, shortly after finally taking the top job, EADS boss Tom Enders failed in a politically audacious bid to merge with British defence giant BAE Systems back in October. Blocked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this has led to a review of the group's strategy that will be unveiled in a few months' time.

However, despite Leahy's confidence, few doubted that Boeing would emerge victorious in 2012: the Americans were equally bullish in forecasting that the year of the London Olympics, Queen's Jubilee, and the Mayan end of the world would belong to them.

The reason why Leahy said that Boeing had played its part in Airbus's success, was because the Americans had failed to launch its 737 MAX in time to take on the A320 Neo to make much of an impact in 2011. Airlines desperate for fuel efficient planes snapped up Airbus's Neo immediately, meaning there was a pent-up demand for the MAX in 2012.

Essentially, there was no way Boeing could take 2011 and no way Airbus could emerge victorious the following year. Zafar Khan, an aerospace analyst at Société Générale, points out that taking the combined total over the past two years would be fairer – and result in an Airbus win – given the tactics employed by the companies.

The competition between the two is almost playground-like at times, but Khan hints that the key for them is for the duopoly to remain while the Chinese, Russians and Brazilians try to catch them up. "Anyway, going forward we're going to see a fairly even distribution between the two as there not many new planes in the offing," argues Khan.

Leahy no doubt sees some sales opportunities in the reputational hit that Boeing is taking over the operational problems with the 787 Dreamliner (see box), though the Americans are confident they can prove the craft are safe.

Whatever his rhetoric, Leahy must know that the two will keep fighting to a draw for some time to come.

Dreamliner nightmare?

The US's aviation watchdog launched a comprehensive review of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner jet last week, focusing on its electrical systems after a series of glitches.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it would conduct a joint review of the plane with Boeing. It did not, however, call for a grounding of the aircraft, with both the FAA and President Obama's Transport Secretary Ray LaHood stressing that they considered the 787 safe to fly. "I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes," Mr LaHood said.

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