Airbus is ramping up production and is expecting to deliver more than 700 aircraft in 2017, as it starts to overcome supply chain and program maturity issues.

“At the beginning of the year [2016], the picture for Airbus was clearly challenging, to say the least,” Airbus Commercial Aircraft president and Airbus COO Fabrice Brégier said, briefing the media Jan. 11. “Next year we will continue to ramp up to above 700 deliveries. We will refine the number during the Airbus Group press conference on Feb. 22.”

The European manufacturer had a busy 2016 with a number of aircraft programs in motion, but it was also hit by engine troubles on the A320neo and cabin supply issues on the A350. This meant that it had to play catch-up in December, delivering a record 111 aircraft within the month—double its normal output—as it strived to get back on track.

“Did we have issues [with the A320neo]? Yes, we hit engine maturity issues. Did we manage to mitigate them and catch up? Yes,” Brégier said. However, production is still “backloaded” and Airbus has 20 aircraft on the tarmac awaiting delivery.

Airbus delivered 68 A320neos in 2016 and this figure will be tripled in 2017. The manufacturer is planning to move its single aisle production from 50 to 60 aircraft per month by mid-2019. “I am extremely confident we can do it,” Brégier said.

When quizzed on what this meant for A320ceo production, Brégier replied: “The transition between the A320ceo and A320neo is less sharp than what we expected three or four years ago, so we will continue deliver substantial number of A320ceos beyond 2017.”

Moving to the A350, Bregier said Airbus faced more difficulties than expected, but these have now largely been overcome. A total of 49 A350s—3.5 times more than in 2015—were delivered to 11 customers in 2016. A350 production went from one aircraft in 2014, to 14 in 2015 and 49 in 2016. “Nobody has ever ramped up widebody production at that rate,” Airbus COO-customers John Leahy said.

Airbus has 818 net orders for the A350 still to be delivered and is aiming to ramp up to 10 aircraft per month by the end of 2018.

Brégier was asked whether the A350 cabin supply issues are now resolved. “No, we still have some difficulties, but this has improved a lot. We were just blocked until summer last year because we were not getting, for example, the lavatories and business class seats. Things have started to improve, but with a low level of quality, meaning that we had to make a lot of effort during cabin fitting to fix these quality issues.”

He said these shortcomings are unacceptable for Airbus’ customers, particularly on a new aircraft program.

“Progressively, our suppliers are doing a better job, but we expect to receive the cabin elements in line with our ramp up - this is no longer the risk - but also with perfect quality. I have asked my teams to do a stricter quality inspection on the suppliers’ premises to guide them towards the level quality which is expected by our customers. We need also to educate the supply chain. They are on their way, but some of them need to continue to make efforts.” 

Airbus is preparing its infrastructure for the ramp up. A new assembly line in Hamburg, Germany and a Chinese A330 completion and delivery centre in Tianjin will both open in 2017.

Leahy dismissed reports that a cyclical slow-down in orders could create problems for the major manufacturers. “There is a difference between orders and deliveries. Deliveries are maintained, even when orders are down. I’ve been with Airbus for 20 years and I’ve not seen a blink in the delivery schedule. Going back 20 years, I don’t see a cycle there. Both of us [Airbus and Boeing] have enormous backlogs to draw down on. I don’t have anything [delivery slots] to sell until 2021 at the earliest. Apart from a few one-offs, we are essentially sold out.”

Airbus’ top sales man is expecting record deliveries in 2017 and 2018, but he accepted that there could be fewer orders in 2017. “I would be very surprised if we are anywhere near our 1:1 book-to-bill,” he said.

Victoria Moores