In the history of commercial aviation, has there ever been a larger order for new aircraft?
In its mammoth $68 billion order for 470 brand-new aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, Air India announced this week. However, is this the biggest order for brand-new commercial aircraft history, or was there one much bigger?
A new record has the order been set?
The news that Tata Group-owned Air India had made significant orders for brand-new aircraft earlier this week was widely anticipated. But many were unprepared for the overwhelming size of the order, the number of airframes involved, and the staggering total order value.
However, are there any orders in the past that have been higher, either in terms of the number of aircraft to be delivered or the order’s overall worth, than the 470 new aircraft that have been ordered and have a total market value of US$68 billion?
What are the current facts?
With its sizable order this week, Air India, according to press releases made by the parties involved in this one-sided transaction, has started the most thorough fleet replacement program ever. The deal is shared equally (in terms of transactional value) between Airbus and Boeing, strengthening each company’s order books by $34 billion at the time of writing.
For its short- and medium-haul operations, Air India will add 40 A350s and 210 A320neo narrowbodies to its Airbus order. The purchase calls for six A350-900s and 34 A350-1000s in addition to 70 A321neos and 140 A320neos. The A350s are the first Airbus widebodies that will be used by Air India.
220 additional aircraft have been firm ordered as part of the deal’s Boeing component. Ten new 777X aircraft, 20 Boeing 787s, and 190 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are included in the deal. Following in the footsteps of Emirates, ANA, British Airways, and others, Air India becomes the 777X’s 11th listed client.
In addition to the firm orders, Air India has also obtained options for an additional 70 aircraft, including 20 787s and 50 737 MAX.
The Financial Times claims that this is the largest order for brand-new commercial aircraft ever placed. However, Simple Flying is here to fact-check its conclusions as we go further into the history of sizable commercial aircraft orders.
What more sizable orders have there been?
Setting some benchmarks is necessary before deciding whether the Air India order is the largest ever. A new aircraft order can be measured by its total market value at the time it is placed or by the number of new airframes that will be added to the airline’s fleet. Even if we have witnessed sizable orders in the past, how does the most recent one compare?
We simply need to travel back in time to June 2011, when American Airlines triumphantly declared that it was placing “the largest aircraft order in history” when it decided to buy a new fleet of narrowbody aircraft from Airbus and Boeing.
The airline stated that its purchase for a total of 460 aircraft from the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families was unprecedented at the time and was the largest ever. At 2011 prices, the order’s total worth was estimated to be $38 billion.
However, this declaration sparked a pattern of sizable orders from airlines all around the world. The two top manufacturers experienced a banner month in that same month (June 2011).
Their growing order books now include purchases from IndiGo (182 aircraft), AirAsia (200 aircraft), and United Airlines (also 200 aircraft). Southwest Airlines provided a strong finish to that year for Boeing by placing an order for 226 aircraft from the 737 series.
In February 2012, when it decided to buy 201 737 MAX aircraft, Lion Air took the lead for the greatest single aircraft order (it added 50 more in 2017). At the same time, it also placed a $21.7 billion order for 29 737-900 aircraft, which Boeing described as its largest commercial airplane order to date.
After that, in 2013, Emirates placed a sizable order with Boeing for 150 brand-new Boeing 777X planes, totaling $76 billion. 35 777-8 and 115 777-9 aircraft were included in the order. This order represented the highest value ever placed for a new aircraft, and given inflation, it would probably be much more valuable now.
In 2019, the Indian low-cost carrier IndoGo placed the following notable significant order. The airline made a sizable order from Airbus for 300 aircraft from the A320neo series, totaling $33 billion.
The most recent significant order before Air India joined the fray this week may be found in the United States, which brings us to our final point. The largest widebody order in US aviation history, according to a statement made at the time, was made by United in December 2022.
In addition to 100 MAX narrowbodies and 100 more Dreamliners, the Chicago-based carrier also ordered 100 Dreamliners (44 exercised options and 56 new units). The order would have been worth more than $37 billion had list prices been used at the time; nevertheless, the parties kept the precise amount of the contract a secret.
How does the Air India order compare then?
Never before has a combined order for 470 new airplanes from Boeing and Airbus been placed. The two largest manufacturers, as we have shown above, have benefited from a number of sizable individual orders over the past eight to ten years. However, the fact that both businesses were given an equally sizable piece of the Air India fleet modernization pie is truly exceptional.
The joint Air India purchase tops American Airlines’s (460) order in terms of quantity by ten airframes and by a large margin in terms of price. There has never before been such a massive order distributed over the two manufacturers for the other enormous purchases mentioned above, even though some of them may have been bigger for Boeing or Airbus individually.
The 2013 Emirates order for 150 Boeing 777X aircraft, valued at $76 billion, only narrowly beats the Air India order in terms of market value, topping it by $8 billion. When the purchase was made, Emirates anticipated that the first of the new fleet members would enter service in 2020. The plane has not even received certification as of yet.
Therefore, based on the number of aircraft bought, the Air India deal is the greatest new commercial aircraft order in the history of commercial air travel.
While the deal may not quite hold the record for the highest value order of all time, it is undoubtedly a very tight race in a world where currencies and aircraft values are subject to constant fluctuation, as well as the fact that airlines nearly always pay the full list price for new aircraft.