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Airbus sold more planes than Boeing last year, but building them is another matter

Airbus reported 1,619 new plane orders in 2013, beating chief competitor Boeing’s 1,531. This is the second year in a row that the European aerospace giant has out-sold Boeing.

While Airbus won last year, thanks in part to an important restructuring and Boeing’s own troubles with the roll-out of the 787 Dreamliner, there is one important caveat: Boeing is still making more planes, and will hold its title as the top jet manufacturer. The Americans delivered 648 planes, the most it has ever built in a single year, while Airbus delivered 626 planes. Deliveries are what actually drive revenues.

A large backlog—Airbus is on the hook for 5,559 planes; Boeing, 5,080—is a blessing for these companies and their investors, since they offer a solid forecast of future earnings. But it can also be a curse: A waiting list means a delay in delivery during which prospective customers might jump ship. It will take Boeing more than seven years to make all the 737 passenger jets—the four-door sedan of passenger jets—it has sold, even at a rate of 38 per month. Airbus, meanwhile, makes its single-aisle passenger jet family at a rate of 42 per month; it will take eight years to clear its backlog at that pace.

That’s why both companies are looking at plans to up productivity. Airbus is also under pressure to match Boeing’s rate of 14 of its Dreamliner aircraft leaving factories each month when it goes into full production on its competing plane, the A350 wide-body. But as Airbus chief Fabrice Bergier told shareholders today, “My problem is to find production slots.”

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