ANALYSIS: Order flurry signals renewed hostilities over narrowbodies

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March has turned into a busy month for the big two airframers. Undeterred by a subdued economic outlook, in the space of a week four airlines have unveiled commitments for a whopping 591 narrowbody jetliners.

The plans unveiled by Lufthansa and Ryanair to order 100 Airbus A320-family aircraft, including 70 Neos, and 175 current-generation Boeing 737s respectively come as little surprise, but the real interest in the flurry of deals over the last week came from fast-growing carriers Turkish Airlines and Indonesia's Lion Air.

Order snapshot

Airline

Airbus A320s

A320neos (options)

Boeing 737s

Lufthansa 30 70 n/a
Turkish Airlines 25 57 (35) n/a
Ryanair n/a n/a 175
Lion Air 60 174 n/a

Turkish has ordered a total of 82 A320s, comprising 25 current-generation models and a further 57 of the re-engined A320neo family. Lion, already a 737 customer, added to its order portfolio with a commitment for 234 Airbus jets, 60 A320s and a further 174 Neos in a deal worth $24 billion at list prices.

The Turkish order represents a second defeat for Boeing in the country, after budget carrier and 737 operator Pegasus Airlines defected in December 2012 to the A320neo over the rival 737 Max.

While Turkish Airlines is a large 737 operator, and still has several 737-800s and -900s on order, Airbus says the agreement is the largest contract placed by a Turkish carrier - eclipsing the deal for 75 firm aircraft signed by Pegasus.

However, Chris Seymour, head of market analysis at Flightglobal's Ascend consultancy arm, believes there may be hope yet for Boeing in Turkey as the airline moves ahead with its rapid expansion plans. "Turkish Airlines already has products from both manufacturers - I wouldn't be surprised to see both types there in future," he says.

Lion Air, meanwhile, has even more ambitious designs for its future. Its purchase of the A320s, on top of its 2012 commitment for 201 of the 737 Max, is to support the establishment of several new carriers in the Asia-Pacific region, including Malaysia's Malindo Airways and full-service Indonesian carrier Batik Air, both of which commence operations in the coming weeks.

Although, Seymour again downplays the partial defection from Boeing to Airbus - "They are planning to build up a big enough fleet that operating two types is less of an issue," - the deal does break Seattle's stranglehold on the Indonesian market.

More broadly, the recent flurry of activity has seen Airbus cement its lead over Boeing in the battle for re-engined narrowbody sales. Toulouse now lists 2,109 firm orders for A320neo-family aircraft, while Boeing's 737 Max - at least for the moment - languishes on 1,185 orders, representing a market share of a touch under 36%.

Richard Aboulafia, vice-president analysis at Virginia consultancy Teal Group, says Boeing will be concerned if its market share continues to dip under the 40% threshold, "but it's just too early to know".

Airbus has a head-start on its rival, launching the Neo ahead of the 737 Max and with entry into service scheduled 18 months in advance of Boeing's jet too. However, Aboulafia says Airbus also benefits from offering an engine choice on the Neo, with airlines able to pick between the CFM International Leap-1A and Pratt & Whitney's PW1100G geared turbofan. Boeing, though, has chosen to maintain CFM as the sole engine provider on the 737, offering the Leap-1B on the Max.

"I think the industry is still processing this massive divergence in [engine] philosophy," says Aboulafia. "I wouldn't bet against Boeing and CFM, but on the other hand I understand the desire [of airlines] to hedge the risk." Crucially, none of the recent Neo orders featured an engine selection, indicating the carriers' caution.

Although attention has been largely focussed on the re-engined element of the recent orders, just under half - or 290 units - of the recent deals were for current-generation aircraft. Aboulafia thinks this is driven by the airframers deciding to keep production rates high to avoid a gap to the re-engined variants and "discounting the hell" out of those aircraft.

Evidence of that keen pricing, he says, is shown by "the fact that they are shifting large numbers [of current-generation aircraft] to the lowest cost carriers", he says.

"These are fuel-sensitive carriers and they should be thinking about saving 10-12% by waiting for the Neo and Max, unless of course, they are getting an extremely good price on the current model."

One little explored aspect of the Ryanair commitment, still to be approved by its shareholders, is the effect on the Comac C919. The Irish budget airline said it had been flirting with placing an order for the Chinese jet, but its deal with Boeing now appears to put an end to that always remote possibility.

Aboulafia says Ryanair's highly public expressions of interest in the C919 were "symptomatic of their ruthless low-cost approach" in that there was never a real intention to order the jet, but the talks served as a useful stick with which to beat Boeing down on price.

"I would hope [Comac] are smart enough to realise they were only ever a notional stalking horse," he says.