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Airbus logs record for plane orders in '13, still behind Boeing

TOULOUSE, France--After tallying a record number of airplane orders and deliveries last year, Airbus is admittedly facing a high bar in 2014.

The European aerospace conglomerate said Monday it delivered 626 planes last year, a company record but still 22 fewer than U.S. rival Boeing Co.

The companies enjoyed a banner year as airlines gobbled up their offerings to renew or build their fleets, cut fuel costs and plan for continued growth in air travel.

Airbus' orders last year rose to 1,619, more than twice its expectations, leading some executives to caution against any precise predictions about how many they'll tally this year. The order backlog — jets it plans to deliver in coming years — sits at a record 5,559.

“The market was extremely bullish ... more bullish than John or me would have thought, and probably Boeing,” said Airbus' top executive Fabrice Bregier, meeting with journalists along with commercial director John Leahy.

Some of the biggest demand came from once-struggling U.S. airlines as well as from emerging markets, particularly 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.

Losing out to Boeing in the delivery tally “doesn't matter to us at all,” Leahy said. “I think we're happy with what we've got. It's a duopoly, with a 50-50 split here. I don't really care if they have two more airplanes or we have two more.”

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 A320 neo in coming years — sits at nearly 4,300 planes.

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.

And tight seating could even partially explain the flared passenger tempers that have made headlines in recent months.

“You guys should start looking at some of the in-flight disturbances that are starting to happen in airplanes: fights that require people to call the police,” Leahy said.

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.

Airbus is set this year to transfer its military aircraft business to another segment of the new Airbus Group — its parent, formerly known as aerospace and defense giant EADS.

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