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Airbus struggles to gauge size of scale-back to production

If it cuts output by too much, it risks losing race to rival Boeing when the upturn comes

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A scale-model Airbus at the Singapore Airshow in February this year. The company had started 2020 ahead of its main rival Boeing, but the coronavirus outbreak has upended the entire industry.

Paris

THE most dramatic contraction in civil aviation history poses a challenge for Airbus in how to balance its response.

Factories that churned out aircraft in record numbers before the coronavirus crisis face an unprecedented production cut. But retreating too far risks leaving the company wrong-footed in a rebound and diluting its advantage over Boeing Co.

Airbus warned last month that it would fall short of its earnings goals this year, hinting it would slow output without providing specifics. This week, the European plane maker reports orders and deliveries for March, the month that virus-induced lockdowns became a global phenomenon, grounding airline fleets in Europe and the US and forcing customers to defer acceptance of aircraft.

Demand was already flagging in February, when the coronavirus downturn was upending flight schedules in Asia. Airbus failed to secure new orders that month. Now customers and suppliers, from Deutsche Lufthansa to EasyJet to Rolls-Royce Holdings are bearing the full brunt of what the International Air Transport Association has called the industry's worst crisis. This is raising pressure on Airbus to give some of its most loyal buyers more flexibility.

The trick will be to pare back output on models like its A320 narrow-body workhorse, where production stood at close to 60 units a month, without going so far that suppliers will be starved out of business.

"If Airbus went into it at 60 A320s a month, they are very unlikely to even make 40," said Sash Tusa, an analyst at Agency Partners in London. "They will be making the decision now, but the rate cut will happen progressively over the next three to four months." Airbus said it has identified a number of operational measures it can take to minimise its cash outflow. These will be activated "depending on the further development of the pandemic".

The company holds its annual general meeting next week, and may comment on its output plans then.

Last week, the company told employees that a return to full production was unlikely in the short-term, after it temporarily idled facilities across Europe. It said on Monday that German sites in Bremen and Stade would be paused for parts of April. A plant in Mobile, Alabama, where it makes A220 and A320 jets, is shut down at least through April 29.

Chief executive officer Guillaume Faury has preached patience, while building up a 30 billion-euro (S$46.5 billion) liquidity buffer to get through the hard times. He said he would base his decisions on facts and discussions with customers.

"I would not make judgments that would be too early," he said last month. "Sometimes we are wrong to be right too early."

The air of crisis marks a reversal of fortunes for Airbus, which entered the year with a clear advantage over its main rival, Boeing. Still reeling from the grounding of its popular 737 Max model after two fatal crashes in rapid succession, the US manufacturer was already in distress after halting production of its bestselling model. Airbus, by contrast, had lifted output to a record and was looking for ways to create even more capacity for the A320 family at its factories.

Now such ambitious plans are on hold, and Mr Faury has predicted that the market for wide-body aircraft used for longer flights will suffer as intercontinental travel dries up. Airbus' offering in that segment consists of the A330neo and the more advanced A350 models. Any decrease in that area will likely come with a delay because many aircraft due this year have already been partially paid for and close to completion, making deferral harder, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at aviation consulting firm Teal Group.

"Wide-body production won't drop off that much this year; it's 2021-2022 that we have to worry about," he said; he estimates A330 output could fall to zero, while Airbus may manage to "hold the line" at six A350s a month.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr was among the first aviation executives to paint a bleak picture of his airline's future fleet requirements. The company, historically among the biggest buyers of Airbus jets, has grounded almost its entire fleet of more than 700 aircraft and runs mainly cargo and repatriation flights of customers stranded overseas.

"We had planned to receive a new jet every 10 days this year, now we need none of these," he said last month. "We are discussing down payments, postponements and cancellations with Seattle and Toulouse," he said, of the cities where Boeing and Airbus have their main plants.

Last week, leasing customer Avolon Holdings deferred delivery of nine A320-family orders to 2027, and cancelled an order for A330neo wide-bodies. The pain was worse for Boeing, which saw an order for its grounded 737 Max slashed by 75 planes.

Boeing, too, has acknowledged that the coronavirus crisis will transform the industry, with CEO David Calhoun saying last week that "the size of the commercial market and the types of products and services our customers want and need will likely be different".

Adjusting production in either direction is always a delicate task for the manufacturers. While Airbus and Boeing have orders for single-aisle models and some wide-bodies stretching out several years, there is a limit to how far suppliers can ramp up when demand peaks. During a trough - or an extraordinary crisis like the 737 Max grounding - the drop-off rips through the supply chain with even greater force. This is why the companies try to minimise shocks to the broader manufacturing ecosystem. BLOOMBERG

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