TOULOUSE, France — After a record year for sales, plane maker Airbus aims to keep business going by focusing on space — as in more legroom, not outer.
Woolly ambitions once bandied about in the aviation industry for supersonic or stratospheric flight have taken a back seat to more mundane market demands at the European manufacturer.
For good reason: Business is booming, and 2013 was a record year in many ways. Airbus said Monday that it received a record 1,619 orders, and delivered a company-best 626 planes — right behind the 648 delivered by U.S. archrival Boeing Co.
The companies, which split the global market for commercial planes, saw airlines gobble up their offerings to renew or build fleets, cut fuel costs and plan for continued growth in travel.
Airbus’ order backlog — jets to be delivered in coming years — sits at a record 5,559, or nearly nine years of work at current production levels. That figure eclipsed Boeing, whose unfulfilled order book stood at 5,080 — a record for the Chicago-based company as well. Airbus is pumping out 42 single-aisle A320s each month, billed as the highest rate ever for a commercial aircraft.
The plane maker, which is shucking its military business to focus on commercial aircraft, is admittedly facing a high bar this year.
“The market was extremely bullish,” said Airbus’ top executive, Fabrice Bregier, as he met with journalists alongside commercial director John Leahy. “More bullish than John or me would have thought, and probably Boeing.”
Some of the biggest demand came from once-struggling U.S. airlines as well as from emerging markets, particularly in Asia.
“The real story for some of you is, where does it go from here?” said Leahy. “The fact is, we cannot as an industry continue at this level. But what we are doing is we’re continuing to increase production.”
“The point is, we are in a growth industry,” he added.
Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, says the global airplane market doubles in size about every 15 years, despite troubles caused by events like the 2001 terror attacks in the United States or the international financial crisis in 2008. Amid last year’s boom in demand, Airbus will raise the average list prices of its aircraft by 2.6 percent this year — though airlines often wrest discounts on their orders.
Single-aisle aircraft, which are easier to contour to the demands of airline customers than are wide-body jets, make up the bulk of orders these days. The backlog for A320s — including the more-fuel-efficient A320neo in coming years — sits at nearly 4,300 planes, making it the best-selling aircraft in history, Airbus said.
But Airbus says its superjumbo, the A380, is also answering a key demand for air travelers: More space and wider seats for those long-haul flights where passenger comfort is more prized.
Squeezed seats might be tolerable for a two- or three-hour flight, but “do it for 15 hours — then you do end up with black eyes,” said Leahy, pulling in his elbows to mimic his own experience with economy-class travel.
Bregier said supersonic flight would not viable anytime soon — suggesting comfort trumps speed for now. When it comes to seat size, an inch can matter a lot, Leahy said, and Airbus is pushing 18-inch seats on the A380.
“Study after study shows that at 18-inch, you can have the ability to move around in the seat. At 17 inches, if you fit in the seat, you aren’t going to move,” he said.
To underscore the point, Airbus provided pens with a tape measure spooled inside with the following inscription, “it’s not you, it’s the seat.”
It’s not just about seats, but also increasing the size of the aisles, so passengers can move around more easily and stretch their legs.
Last year, Airbus recorded its biggest single order for the A380: 50, from Emirates. Among other highlights to 2013 was its biggest single order, for 234 A320s from Lion Air, and an order for 31 A350XWBs from Japan Airlines — a customer that has long favored Boeing.
The focus on the flying passenger is set to grow at Airbus this year as the company sheds its military aircraft business to another segment of the new Airbus Group — its parent, formerly known as aerospace and defense giant EADS.