Is Boeing Heading From Second Place to First Loser?

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The 737 is dead! Long live the 737!
Imagine this scenario: Sometime in the mid-1990's, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox managed to muscle out or swallow up every other team in Major League Baseball, and since then have played every game of every season, from spring training to the World Series, against each other.

Replace the national pastime with commercial jet plane production, and you've got the thumbnail sketch of the duopoly that is Boeing and Airbus.

Until this year, that is, when Boeing started looking less like the Red Sox and more like the Washington Senators.

It's hard to overstate how fierce the competition is between the two companies. Every time an airline announces its desire to upgrade its fleet, the two behemoths are pitted head-to-head in a zero-sum game, in which neither side is above, for example, taking advantage of noncompetitive rules put in place by protectionist governments.

Yesterday marked an important skirmish in this ongoing war, with Airbus snagging 260 of American Airlines' order of 460 new planes, leaving Boeing with 200. In order to salvage what it got from American, Boeing was forced into an embarrassing about-face on its much-hyped plans for a new small plane to replace the 737. Instead, Boeing announced it will put new, more efficient engines in its 737s, keeping them rolling out of Renton for more than a decade to come. It is 200 of these as-yet-theoretical upgraded 737s that American has ordered.

This marks the first time in 15 years that American has given any jet manufacturer other than Boeing any business at all. It is all the more troubling for Boeing when coupled with the fact that even before this coup, Airbus has been eating its lunch on new orders in 2011. As of July 12, Boeing had 138 orders for new planes this year. By contrast, as of June 30 Airbus had received orders for 640. Airbus' numbers were buoyed by two large contracts it won in June, with Malaysia's Air Asia and India's IndiGo, who ordered a combined 350 planes.

From 2001 to 2010, Airbus had taken in more orders than Boeing in eight of 10 years. But in that span, unlike this year, Boeing held its own.

To be sure, Boeing isn't going away anytime soon. Refocusing on the 737 rather than tinkering with a replacement that it wasn't ready to deliver is a belated but necessary step to keep the company in the game. Whether it can keep Airbus from running up the score is another matter.

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