European aerospace and defense group EADS forecast a significant improvement in operating profit next year after stable earnings this year as a pickup in demand leads to a surge in orders for Airbus planes.

The group posted forecast-beating second-quarter results on Friday and raised its free cash flow target for the year to around 1 billion euros ($1.44 billion), excluding any spending on acquisitions. It now has net cash of 11 billion euros. Quarterly earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) rose 15 percent to 371 million euros in the three months to June 30, EADS said in a statement. Sales rose 6 percent to 12.1 billion.

EADS had been expected to post EBIT of 317 million euros, down from 323 million a year ago, on sales of 11.6 billion in the second quarter, according to a Reuters analyst poll.

Our results for the first half of 2011 mirror the strong demand in the commercial aviation sector, Chief Executive Louis Gallois said in a statement.

EADS said it still expected 2011 EBIT before one-offs to remain stable compared with the 2010 level at around 1.3 billion euros. Earnings per share could be above or below last year's level depending on the euro's strength against the dollar.

But for 2012, the group expects a significant improvement in its EBIT thanks to higher volume, better pricing and improvement of A380 performance at Airbus, EADS added.

EADS said planemaker Airbus should deliver 520 to 530 aircraft this year, including around 25 A380 superjumbos, and win more than 1,000 gross orders, helping revenue exceed last year's level.

Airbus bagged hundreds of fresh orders at the Paris Air Show last month, and recently scored a major goal against rival Boeing as it won part of a key order from U.S. carrier AMR Corp's American Airlines.

($1=.6963 Euro)

(Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Christian Plumb)