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Airbus secures lead over Boeing as 737 Max uncertainty continues

[NEW YORK] Shares of Airbus SE handily pulled ahead of rival Boeing Co this year after a pair of fatal 737 Max plane crashes led to the grounding of the US model's entire fleet.

Airbus is poised to finish the year ahead of Boeing for the first time since 2015, with an increase of roughly 50 per cent since the start of January, compared to the Chicago-based company's less than 10 per cent gain.

With the uncertainty of approvals for the Max to resume flying, many analysts predict the French aircraft maker will continue to outperform its troubled peer in 2020 as well. Yet Airbus's own production issues at home amid trade concerns with the US could also threaten its performance.

"There is no question that Airbus has benefited from the problems at Boeing," Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets UK, said in an interview. In fact, he still believes the market is under-pricing problems at the US manufacturer.

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Shares of both planemakers began 2019 at a brisk pace with Boeing and Airbus each up about 35 per cent through February. That changed in March, however, after the second 737 Max crash in five months, triggering investigations into the company.

Uncertainty is expected to be the opening theme for Boeing in 2020, with some expecting Airbus's shares to continue benefiting from the confusion, given it's the only other major producer of commercial aircraft.

That effective duopoly, however, has come into sharper focus as the World Trade Organization considers competing US and European Union claims of unfair state subsidies.

Airbus fell 4.4 per cent last Tuesday after the WTO said the EU hadn't sufficiently eliminated the adverse effects of subsidies to Airbus. It followed a ruling earlier in the year, which said the US may impose retaliatory tariffs on European goods over its aid to Airbus, putting the company at the center of the trade tensions with US.

While the 737 Max's return to service will be the biggest issue to watch for Boeing next year, the focus on Airbus will on be on the fallout from the tariff war in addition to its manufacturing troubles and engine issues. Customisations to Airbus's narrow-body planes, the same category that the 737 Max belongs to, have proven difficult to incorporate into the production line.

Citigroup analyst Charles Armitage said Airbus's opportunity to benefit from the 737 Max grounding was also limited in part because its comparable A320 family of planes is already sold out until at least 2024.

Still, Airbus netted 542 aircraft orders in 2019 compared to a negative 95 for Boeing, adjusting for cancellations and conversions. Airbus's market share for narrow-body aircraft now stands at 58 per cent, up from 56 per cent in January, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Benjamin Heelan.

The latest blow to Boeing came last week when United Airlines Holdings Inc said it would buy 50 Airbus A321XLR jets worth over US$7 billion to replace its the aging Boeing 757-200 aircraft in its fleet. Boeing has postponed deciding whether to develop a new plane of comparable size as it wrestles with the troubles of the 737 Max.

It's still uncertain when the Max will be cleared to fly. Boeing said it expects US aviation safety regulators to approve the redesign by the end of the year and to finalize new training standards in January. Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines Co, which is the largest operator of the 737 Max, has pulled the aircraft from its flight schedule through March 6. American Airlines Group Inc and Ryanair Holdings Plc have also made similar moves.

And then there will be the challenge of winning over the public.

"It is clear to me that there is something fundamentally flawed in a plane that requires an elaborate and complex software fix to keep it in the air safely," CMC's Mr Hewson said. Such a fix may work in a military aircraft where the pilot is able to eject, but it is "simply untenable" in a commercial aircraft that carries hundreds of passengers, the analyst said.

Despite their current challenges, in the long run, both companies stand to gain from a rising demand for air travel amid a broader move toward urbanization. Air traffic is expected to continue growing at a 4 per cent to 5 per cent annual clip, said Pedro Marinheiro, a portfolio manager at Reyl & Cie,"Should things be resolved at Boeing, which is not yet the case, we believe the uncertainty discount applied to Boeing should progressively vanish," he added.

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