Boeing reports record jet orders

CHICAGO - The Boeing Co. said Thursday it snared a record 1,044 commercial airplane orders last year, positioning it to formally regain the lead from Airbus in the all-important sales category within days for the first time since 2000.

Continuing strong demand for its upcoming 787 Dreamliner helped Boeing surpass the previous year's total of 1,002 net orders, when Airbus had a late-year surge to top it with 1,055. Boeing's 2006 gross orders - which do not take account of cancellations and conversions - came to 1,050.

Rival Airbus has since been losing market share and trailed its Chicago-based rival by a wide margin with 687 firm orders reported as of Nov. 30. Barring an unlikely flood of orders in December, it will drop to second place in orders when it announces 2006 figures on Jan. 17.

Airbus, however, will retain its lead over Boeing for a fourth straight year in aircraft deliveries, the category that determines the world's No. 1 plane maker. Boeing said it delivered 398 commercial planes in 2006, while Airbus was on a pace recently to deliver a record 425.

Boeing recorded 157 orders for the 787 last year, with customers eager to take advantage of its lower fuel consumption and more passenger-friendly design. The plane is due to enter service in mid-2008 after test flights beginning later this year.

Still, it was the 737 that provided the bulk of orders again in 2006, with customers ordering a record 729 of the popular single-aisle aircraft.

Boeing also had 76 orders for 777s, 10 for 767s and 72 for 747s, which it said was the highest total for the 747 program since 1990.

Scott Carson, chief executive officer of Boeing's Seattle-based commercial jet-building division, said the company has built a well-balanced backlog of orders over the last two years, after having struggled previously.

"The strong orders for the past two years are a validation of our strategy of focusing on our customers, simplifying our product and services offerings and transforming our production system," Carson said.

Carson, who took over the job after Alan Mulally left to become CEO at Ford Motor Co., was credited with reinvigorating the company's sales force as its commercial airplane sales chief from December 2004 until last September.

Separately, Boeing reported reducing its work force by 2,356 jobs to 154,031 in 2006, with the majority of the cuts in California. But it has now added jobs for 31 consecutive months in Washington state, where it had 68,170 employees as of Dec. 31, reflecting the need to keep up with strong demand for commercial airplanes.

Boeing shares, which rose 26 percent last year, increased 10 cents to $89.27 in early afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.