The civil aviation industry is in an upbeat mood as the final preparations are being made for the Farnborough air show which opens on 2 September. World airlines are clear of the recession and carrying more passengers than ever before. The recovery in airline profits has restored confidence after the debacle of the early 1990s when financial losses reached historic proportions. It has also launched them into a new phase of acquisitions and the makers of passenger planes are experiencing a corresponding improvement in orders.

The two leading plane makers have been the major beneficiaries. Europe’s Airbus Industrie had received a total of 189 new orders by the start of August and had delivered 76 new planes to customers. This compares with orders for only 106 planes in the whole of 1995. ‘Airbus Industrie approaches Farnborough on an optimistic note, with sales taking off as a new reordering cycle begins,’ Airbus said in a statement. The company values the orders booked to mid-August at more than $14,000 million. Airbus is confident of receiving orders for a grand total of 300 new aircraft by the end of the year.

The Boeing Commercial Airplane Group has seen an even stronger rebound in orders. By late August, when United Airlines confirmed an order for 19 planes, Boeing had booked new orders for 333 jets, which contrasts with 346 aircraft over the full year in 1995. The value of the bookings was more than $25,000 million. Despite the legacy of a bitter strike which interrupted production, Boeing managed to deliver 103 new aircraft over the first six months of the year. If orders continue to pile up at the current rate, Boeing could be on track for its best year since the tail end of the 1980s boom. The company received a record 607 new orders in 1989 before the downturn set in. At its lowest ebb, in 1994, it won orders for only 120 new aircraft.

Third force

Trailing a distant third is McDonnell Douglas, which had received orders for 24 new aircraft by the end of June and delivered 18 planes to customers. The new orders were for six of the long-range MD-11s and 18 MD-90s. Last year the company delivered 40 new aircraft. It also won orders for 130 new aircraft, which was a better performance than Airbus. The 1995 figure included an order from the US budget carrier ValuJet for 50 MD-95s, a 100-seat commuter plane that is scheduled to enter commercial service in 1999. ValuJet is grounded at the moment after a crash in Florida, but is expected to resume services soon. The carrier is the launch customer for the MD-95 and McDonnell says that ValuJet’s current travails have not affected the order.

Boeing is the world’s biggest aircraft maker and claims a 67 per cent share of the world market from 1992-95. Airbus, the second largest plane maker, claims market leadership in certain categories and aims to achieve a 50 per cent share of the global market. A core element of the Airbus strategy will be a refocusing of the unwieldy consortium structure into a single company. The four partners Aerospatiale of France, Germany’s Daimler-Benz Aerospace (Dasa), British Aerospace and Casa of Spain agreed in July to turn Airbus into a limited company and will finalise details by the end of the year. The changes are intended to make Airbus more efficient and profitable and could affect the way different parts of the plane are made by the member companies and then flown to different plants around Europe for final assembly.

Airbus has also launched the A3XX project to create a 550-seat challenger for the venerable Boeing 747 or its successor. With development of the plane, expected to cost more than $8,000 million, Airbus will enter a segment of the market which Boeing now has to itself.

Otherwise, the two market leaders are concentrating on further development of their existing range of aircraft. The Boeing 777 only entered commercial service last year and a total of have already been ordered by 21 customers. Deliveries to the end of June had reached 28 aircraft, including one to Dubai based Emirates. Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudi Arabian) is one of the biggest 777 buyers with 23 on order. The 777 is currently available in two versions and there are plans for further variants.

The smallest member of the Airbus range, the 124-seat A 319, entered passenger service earlier this year and has achieved 96 orders from seven customers. The A3XX project apart, Airbus is concentrating development work on the existing A340 to boost passenger capacity and range. The A340-500 will be larger than the present A 340 -300 and will have an extended range of 15 ,000 kilometers. Another variant in development is the A340-600 which will carry passengers more than 13,000 kilometers.

Conditions are less benign for some of the industry’s other leading companies. In the case of Fokker, the world’s oldest surviving aircraft maker, it could even mean the end ot production in a matter of months unless a buyer can be found for the bankrupt company. The Dutch regional jet specialist was a victim of the fierce competition in a growing, but overcrowded segment of the market. It plunged into loss in 1993. but Daimler-Benz, which acquired a 51 per cent interest in the company the same year was not prepared to inject the $1,400 million in new capital that Fokker needed to survive. Possible buyers have included Canada’s Bombardier, British Aerospace, Saab of Sweden. Samsung Aerospace of Korea, and Tupolev and Yakovlev of Russia.

Fokker says that contacts with a number of companies have yet to produce a solid proposal. Since declaring bankruptcy on 15 March, the support side of the company has been put into a new unit, Fokker Aviation, which employs 2.400 people and services Fokker customers. Only 450 people are still employed on fulfilling outstanding orders: 15 planes have been built since March and production of 15 more will keep the line open until next April. About 4.750 people have already lost their jobs.

Fokker’s extinction would be a blow to industry morale, but may actually make it easier for the remaining regional jet makers to survive. McDonnell Douglas is under pressure from Boeing and Airbus and has seen its bid to build a future in China thwarted as its bigger rivals have walked off with much larger orders from Chinese airlines. As their order books start to bulge once again the two market leaders are suffering no such anxieties.