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Boeing woes unlikely to disturb duopoly

Arthur Sullivan
December 19, 2019

Problems keep piling up for Boeing. As it grapples with the fallout of two tragic crashes, it's losing money and credibility. But that doesn't mean its place alongside Airbus in the global aviation duopoly is threatened.

Boeing und Airbus auf Luftfahrtmesse in Paris-Le Bourget
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suki

Boeing has had the kind of year that most companies in most industries would not recover from. The fallout from two devastating crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX model that killed 346 people worsens by the day.

At the very least, you'd expect Boeing's difficulty to be another company's opportunity.

But the plane building business isn't like any other. Startups are not going to come in and simply start building air-worthy $100 million (€90 million) passenger jets. No sector has barriers to entry quite like aerospace.

Seattle-based Boeing and its European rival Airbus completely dominate the commercial plane building business. The scale of their supremacy is eye watering.

Between them, they've made 90% of the world's passenger planes in the last five years. According to the Teal Group, an aerospace industry consultancy, the pair account for 99% of all large plane orders in the world.

With numbers like that, you'd be forgiven for wondering why any other companies in the world make planes. But they do, and for many years now both Boeing and Airbus have been looking over their wings and wondering if any would ever join them at the top.

Still waiting for the Manchurian candidate

In the early 2000s, Boeing was out in front but Airbus — the product of deep consolidation in the European aerospace industry — caught up quickly to share the market. In their slipstream are the Canadian company Bombardier, the Brazilian conglomerate Embraer and a handful of others including Russia's United Aircraft Corporation and Japan's Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation.

Planes added to global fleet from 2014 to 2018

Not only have the other companies not made a dent in the duopoly's dominance, their tiny share of the market has actually been getting smaller in recent years (see graphic above).

That hasn't stopped both Boeing and Airbus fretting for years about one potential competitor in particular — Comac, the Chinese state-owned aerospace manufacturer.

Back in 2007, a year before Comac was founded, then Boeing CEO Jim McNerney spoke of the inevitability of China entering the passenger plane market. At the time, Boeing believed China would have an aircraft equivalent to its 737 range by the year 2020. China's status as the fastest growing aviation market in the world seemed to make this even more inevitable, as a local kingpin could expect to receive huge support from state-backed airlines.

But 2020 is at hand, Boeing is in the midst of an existential crisis and Comac is nowhere to be seen. Its long-awaited C919 was conceived a decade ago, apparently as a serious short-haul rival to the 737 and the Airbus A320, but it has been beset by production delays.

It is unlikely to take to the skies before 2022. Building planes capable of matching the established masters in an industry as heavily regulated as aviation is an expensive, complicated business.

This runway is only big enough for the both of us

That's even more the case when one considers the ruthlessness with which the duopoly has approached the concept of a third competitor emerging in recent years.

Partly to stave off the Chinese "threat" and also to capitalize on the fact that the Asian market is expected to account for more than 40% of new aircraft sales in the next 20 years, both Boeing and Airbus have set up factories in China.

Chinese carriers already have large numbers of Airbus and Boeing aircraft in their fleets, although that will change if Comac can get its act together over the next decade and convince airlines it has the kit to rival the big boys.

Boeing and Airbus also went after Bombardier when it launched its C-Series 10 years ago. Boeing complained about Canadian state aid and the subsequent tariffs crippled Bombardier to the extent that it had to sell half the C-Series operation to Airbus, even though it eventually won the case.

Embraer too has felt the breath of the dragons. Boeing purchased the Brazilian outfit's commercial passenger jet division for $4.2 billion to stave off competition and boost its own strength in the face of Airbus' growing might. Although the deal may yet fall foul of EU antitrust regulators, it has already cleared that hurdle in China.

Top ten countries by fleet size

Carving up a smaller pie

If any company is likely to advance as a result of Boeing's woes, it's Airbus. Its CCO, Christian Scherer, recently lashed out at that notion. "I really need to correct that cultural belief. This does not benefit anyone in this industry, the least of which would be Airbus," he said. "It's a tragedy, it is an issue for Boeing to resolve, but it is not good for competitors to see problems on any one particular airplane type."

It's a fair point. Boeing's problems are being felt across the industry. But it's hard to ignore the fact that Airbus is on course to soon become the number one plane-maker in the world on the back of a rise in deliveries, orders and profits. And that's despite production bottlenecks that have led to a backlog of more than 7,000 aircraft. 

Yet the nature of the business means Airbus can't simply increase production. "You would expect Airbus to be standing there, arms wide open, inviting Boeing's customers to come along," said Arne Schulke, an aviation expert at the University of Bad Honnef. "But the fact is, the A320 series is at a maximum of production and you just can't ramp it up more," he told DW. "Airbus has a backlog of about eight years in production."

While Boeing's slot at number one is under threat, its place in the top two is certainly not for now. A bigger concern is one which applies to Airbus every bit as much as Boeing, and that's the overall slowing down of demand for passenger jets after a decade of growth. Rising oil prices, global trade conflicts and an increased awareness around the environmental damage done by aviation is all playing its part in that.

So Boeing might keep its share overall. It just might find itself carving up a smaller pie.