Airbus slows production ramp-up, citing pandemic’s hit to demand

George T. Taft

Airbus slowed the pace of a planned ramp-up in jetliner production, after a global surge in coronavirus cases dealt a fresh blow to demand.

Output of the A320-series narrowbody, Airbus’ bestselling model, will now rise gradually to 45 per month in the fourth quarter, the European planemaker said Thursday in a statement. It had previously targeted a faster jump, to 47 monthly by July.

The decision marks a retreat from the optimism shown in October, when Airbus told suppliers to prepare for a sharp increase in narrowbody production in the second half of 2021. Since then, fast-spreading variants of the virus have sent case counts soaring, despite the start of vaccine rollouts. Tightened borders have forced airlines to pull back on schedules, raising concerns that a hoped-for summer rebound in air travel will be delayed.

“The COVID situation has got markedly worse” since fall, said Sandy Morris, an analyst at Jefferies. The impact on 2021 deliveries from the adjustment should be modest, he added.

Airbus now plans to produce 43 A320-series jets per month in the third quarter, up from the current 40, before rising again in the final three months. The manufacturer will hold off on a potential rate increase for the A350 widebody for this year. Output of the A220, Airbus’ smallest model, will rise by one to five per month from the end of March as planned.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said this month that the new virus wave was creating uncertainty over the ramp-up, despite the rollout of new vaccines that should bring down the number of cases. Airlines have been raising more funds to protect their balance sheets, as they brace for a longer downturn.

On Thursday, Dutch flag carrier KLM said it would cut up to 1,000 added jobs because the recovery from the pandemic is taking longer than expected.

Deutsche Lufthansa Chief Executive Officer Carsten Spohr painted a slightly more optimistic view of the industry’s prospects, saying vaccine programs should slow the virus spread and allow for traffic recovery in the second quarter.

Airbus delivered 566 aircraft last year, a third fewer than in 2019. While handovers of widebody jets crumbled, demand for single-aisle planes slipped only 30%.

Airbus continues to expect the commercial aircraft market to return to pre-COVID levels by 2023 to 2025, it said in the statement.

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