By Ankit Ajmera
(Reuters) - Boeing delivered an improved 26 aircraft in January, boosted by the clearing of the 737 MAX jet to fly again after a 20-month ban as it also won four new orders for its 747-8 freighters.
MAX deliveries are seen as central to Boeing's financial recovery in 2021 after a sharp slump in demand for its bigger, more profitable wide-body jets due to the coronavirus crisis added to the company's woes last year.
Boeing, which books revenue after actual deliveries, said it handed over 21 737 MAX jets last month, along with one P8 military plane and four wide-body aircraft other than the 787 Dreamliner that had no deliveries for the third straight month.
The overall figure compared to 39 aircraft in December and was double the 13 planes delivered in January of last year, as Boeing struggled with the MAX's grounding. In January two years ago, the company delivered 46 planes.
Intensive inspections over recent production flaws have compounded delays from the COVID-19 crisis for the 787s - the second most important cash generator for Boeing after the 737 MAX.
Following January's deliveries, Boeing is now estimated to have a total of about 400 737 MAX jets in storage, down from about 450 at the end of November, when the U.S. regulator gave a green light to start the jet's shipments.
The company reaffirmed last month that it expects to deliver about half of the 737 MAXs in storage by the end of 2021, but warned that surging COVID-19 infections could affect that timeline.
The four gross orders for the 747-8 freighters from Atlas Air had already been announced.
January orders net of cancellations and conversions, however, stood at negative two, as customers scrapped two orders for 737 MAX jets, three orders for 747-8 aircraft and one order for 787-8 Dreamliner.
Boeing removed from its backlog another 11 737 MAX jets seen as unlikely to be filled when stricter accounting standards are applied. When adjusted for the accounting standard, that made January net orders negative 13.
European rival Airbus SE reported deliveries of 21 aircraft in January with no orders or cancellations.
(Corrects to say order cancellations were for three 747-8 aircraft and one 787-8 Dreamliner, not four 747-8 aircraft, in paragraph 9)
(Reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)