How much does a new airliner really cost?
When Airbus and Boeing Co. BA 0.02% announce orders at the Farnborough International Airshow this week, they will value the deals based on the planes’ catalog prices—which no one pays. Airline executives, when pressed for details, will probably say they got “a great deal.” But actual terms will remain guarded like nuclear launch codes.
The aviation industry’s code of silence on pricing is notable in this era of information overload. Thousands of people world-wide are involved in airplane purchases, yet few numbers spill out. That yields much mystery and speculation.
“The whole model is wacky,” says Robert Milton, chairman of Air Canada parent Ace Aviation Holdings Inc., who says he approximates the real price of announced multibillion-dollar orders by cutting the stated value in half.
Manufacturers acknowledge haggling, and recently have traded accusations of starting a price war. Even in sales that aren’t hotly contested, customers placing big orders get lower prices, as do early buyers of new models.
“Discounts do vary, primarily based on volume,” says John Leahy, chief operating officer for customers at the Airbus unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. Mr. Leahy declined to specify the variation or to discuss prices of specific deals.
Boeing’s vice president for airplane marketing, Randy Tinseth, says “there are many levers you can pull” in a contract. He wouldn’t discuss details.
But there are ways to estimate the range of discounts. An analysis of public data by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with numerous industry officials yielded this: Discounts seem to vary between roughly 20% and 60%, with an average around 45%. Savvy buyers don’t pay more than half the sticker price, industry veterans say. But deal specifics differ greatly.
Part of the reason prices vary so much and are hard to pin down is that airplane contracts are complex. The documents can run to hundreds of pages, with sections covering structures, engines, cabin interiors, spare parts, operating performance and training. And just as airlines can make cheap tickets expensive with lots of additional fees, a jetliner that starts out looking like a bargain may quickly cost more when extras such as onboard equipment get added to the tab, further clouding the actual price.
Airlines also generally order lots of planes at once, for delivery over many years. So the real price of each plane in a single order can differ significantly due to inflation. The adjustments to account for this, known as escalation formulas, can erase much of an initial discount in just a few years, airline executives say.
One reason for the secrecy surrounding all this, say industry officials, is psychology: Less-experienced plane buyers like to think they got a bargain and don’t want to be embarrassed if they overpaid. The safest approach then is silence. More-seasoned plane buyers also know that bragging about discount specifics would anger Airbus, Boeing or other producers and hurt the chances of striking a sweetheart deal again.
Hints Are Dropped
However divorced from reality catalog prices are, they do have some uses. One is marketing.
“The list price enables the manufacturers to have large, splashy headlines about the size of the deals they’re doing,” says Gary Liebowitz, an analyst at the Wells Fargo Securities unit of Wells Fargo & Co.
Published prices also are the basis for the progress payments plane buyers fork over as a plane is being built, Mr. Liebowitz notes. Higher list prices mean bigger deposits.
As for actual prices, airlines occasionally let numbers slip, either because of disclosure requirements or loose tongues.
Southwest Airlines Co. LUV -0.09% , for example, recently published numbers related to its new order for Boeing 737 Max jetliners in a government filing. Mr. Liebowitz of Wells Fargo crunched the data and estimated an actual base price of roughly $35 million per plane, or a discount of around 64%. He noted that Southwest is one of Boeing’s best customers and that early buyers of new models get preferential pricing. A Southwest spokeswoman declined to comment.
Air India, in seeking funding last year for seven Boeing 787 Dreamliners it expects to receive this year, cited an average “net cost” of about $110 million per plane. The current list price is roughly $194 million, suggesting a 43% discount. Air India didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.
In March 2011, Russian flag carrier Aeroflot mentioned in a securities filing that it would pay at most $1.16 billion for eight Boeing 777s, which at the time represented a discount of 47%. Company representatives at the time said they had no details of the deal.
A senior Thai Airways International official was widely quoted in 2007 as saying the state-owned carrier had received discounts on Airbus A330 aircraft amounting to roughly 50%. A Thai Airways spokeswoman declined to comment on airplane pricing for this article.
Smaller price cuts have been reported for some other airlines. Biman Bangladesh Airlines in 2008 ordered Boeing 777s and 787s at prices cited by the national news agency representing discounts of between 20% and 33%. Biman didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.
Other hints can be gleaned from information Boeing makes public. Each year the manufacturer publishes the contracted value of its order backlog. Separately, it lists the planes in its backlog and their catalog prices. Crunching all these numbers yields an average discount over recent years of about 45%.
Two decades ago, discounts were just a few percent, say industry old-timers. The widening gap points to an unspoken dynamic in jetliner pricing: Plane makers regularly raise their catalog prices and airlines continually bargain those prices down. As a result, actual prices for popular models have barely budged in years, say insiders. Assuming that trend continues, one aspect of airliner pricing looks clear: Discounts will keep growing.