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Airbus Wins a Hollow Victory at Farnborough

Airbus (NASDAQOTH: EADSY) won a clear victory over its perennial rival, Boeing (NYSE: BA), in the order race at last week's Farnborough Airshow.

Whether measured by the number of planes ordered, the total value of orders and commitments, or the volume of firm orders alone, Airbus outpaced its American rival. However, Airbus' order haul was far less impressive than it may appear on the surface.

Airbus racks up more orders

Airbus left Farnborough with orders and commitments worth $35 billion at list prices, covering 279 aircraft. Meanwhile, Boeing brought in orders and commitments for 182 airplanes, worth $26.8 billion at list prices.

Airbus received orders and commitments for 279 commercial airplanes last week. Image source: Airbus.

However, the vast majority of Boeing's Farnborough deal activity took the form of non-binding commitments rather than firm orders. Indeed, Boeing announced just 20 new firm orders during the air show.

By contrast, firm orders accounted for the majority of Airbus' deal activity at Farnborough: 197 aircraft worth $26.3 billion at list prices. Yet some of these firm orders and commitments may be worth little more than the paper they are written on. Furthermore, orders for its slower-selling widebody models remained few and far between.

Are these really firm orders?

More than half of Airbus' firm orders last week came from a single deal: Asian ultra-low-cost carrier AirAsia ordered 100 A321neos. This was easily the biggest transaction announced at Farnborough. Nearly all of Airbus' non-firm commitments came from a single customer as well: India's GoAir signed a letter of intent for 72 A320neos.

Both AirAsia and GoAir are ordering aircraft to support enormous future growth plans. It's certainly possible that they will be able to follow through on these plans, but it's much more likely that many of these aircraft orders will eventually be deferred or canceled.

Before last week's order, AirAsia already had more than 300 firm orders for A320neos, some of which aren't scheduled for delivery until 2028. The A321neo order brings its Airbus backlog to more than 400 planes, compared to roughly 175 currently in service across all of its affiliates.

Even growing to its current size hasn't been straightforward for AirAsia. It has deferred aircraft deliveries multiple times in recent years, including in 2009, 2011, and 2014. Its main Malaysian subsidiary had fewer aircraft at the end of March than it did a year earlier.

Thus, the AirAsia "firm order" is little more than a vague statement of the airline's intent to grow in the future. Between the company's history of order deferrals and the massive size of its order book, the probability of AirAsia taking all 404 planes it has ordered on schedule is virtually nil.

The same can be said for GoAir, which recently took delivery of the first two aircraft from an earlier deal for 72 A320neos, bringing its fleet up to a paltry 21 aircraft. If it finalizes its recent letter of intent, it would have a backlog of 142 A320neos.

While the Indian air travel market is growing quickly, it is also intensely competitive. GoAir will have its hands full with its original A320neo order for many years to come. Doubling that order was little more than a PR stunt.

Widebody sales remain muted

Thus, two airlines with questionable capacity to take on new airplanes accounted for the majority of Airbus' activity at Farnborough. What's more, Airbus hardly needed more orders for the A320 family, having ended June with a firm backlog of nearly 5,500 airplanes.

By contrast, Airbus had much less success in the widebody market, particularly for the A330neo. Selling more A330neos ought to be Airbus' top priority, given that there are fewer than 200 firm orders on the books ahead of an expected entry-into-service near the end of 2017. All Airbus could manage was to finalize a single firm order for four A330-900neos, an order that was originally announced more than a year ago.

Demand for the new A330neo remains tepid. Image source: Airbus.

Airbus still has a firm backlog of more than 100 current-generation A330s, so the situation isn't critical yet. However, the apparent lack of customer interest doesn't bode well for the A330neo's long-term success.

Combine that with the announcement that Airbus will slash production of the A380 jumbo jet from 27 in 2015 to about 12 per year by 2018, and its sales victory over Boeing at Farnborough appears to be virtually meaningless. Boeing and Airbus both struck out at the biggest air show of 2016.

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Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of Boeing. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.