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Airbus Group's production plans highlight the widening split between its workhorse model and its flagship plane, which is at risk of ending a third year without a new airline order.
Airbus will lift output of the A320 single-aisle plane to 60 a month by mid-2019, a record for any airline manufacturer and twice as many as it plans for the giant A380 in an entire year.
The Toulouse, France-based company will build an additional plant in Hamburg to help accommodate booming demand for the series that seats 124 to 240 people. At the other end of the spectrum, the 550-seat A380 superjumbo will see output trail off in coming years, going to as few as 20 by 2017 from around 30 annually, as the backlog runs down.
The diverging fortunes of the two models highlights Airbus's increasing dependence on single-aisle models, which form the backbone of the aviation industry and helped turn the European manufacturer into the only rival to Boeing. While Airbus will manage to stop production losses on the A380 for the first time in 2015, the plane remains a tough sell. Gulf-carrier Emirates is its only major backer, accounting for almost half of all A380s ordered.
Airbus may even go beyond the 60-a-month rate on single- aisle planes, as it has the capacity to reach 63 a month from 2020 and beyond, Airbus Chief Financial Officer Harald Wilhelm told analysts on Friday after the company reported earnings for the third quarter.
Besides production lines in Toulouse and Hamburg, Airbus also turns out four A320s a month from its factory in Tianjin, China, and will begin producing the upgraded A320neo variant at a new facility in Mobile, Ala. later this year. That line is set to build four a month and could handle as many as eight, the company has said. Airbus today has orders for about 5,500 A320s and A320neos in its current backlog.
By contrast, the A380 backlog has been dwindling and is only enough to keep production running at its current break-even rate of about 30 a year until 2020. And that's only if all orders stick, which is doubtful. Indebted Russian carrier Transaero Airlines recently said it was deferring its four orders.
To keep the A380 program going in the hopes of securing more orders down the line, Airbus is making efforts to become more efficient and avoid losses at lower production rates, said the CFO, who last year raised the prospect of discontinuing the plane. The company then reaffirmed its commitment.
"The backlog is good enough for us to achieve break-even in 2016, with something slightly below 30, and for 2017, we have 20 to 30" planes that could be delivered to A380 customers, Wilhelm said. "Our ambition is to be as close as possible" to break even.
Those modest ambitions are in marked contrast to the A320. Airbus now builds the plane at a rate of just above 42 a month and had previously planned to boost the figure to 50 by early 2017. The goal exceeds Boeing's own target of 52 single-aisle 737s as the two vie with each other for supremacy in the segment.
Deliveries of Airbus's best-seller sparked a 12 percent gain in third-quarter operating profit to 921 million euros ($1.01 billion). The figure beat an average forecast by seven analysts for 774.6 million euros. Sales rose to 14.07 billion euros from 13.3 billion euros.
Airbus shares, buoyed also by plans to buy back 1 billion euros worth of stock by mid-2016, rose as much as 6.3 percent to 64.50 euros and was up 4.7 percent at 2:14 p.m. in Paris, valuing the company at 50.1 billion euros.