Airbus yesterday pumped up the prospects of its proposed A350 jet, which will compete against Boeing's 787. The European jet maker secured...

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Airbus yesterday pumped up the prospects of its proposed A350 jet, which will compete against Boeing’s 787.

The European jet maker secured a U.S. launch customer by loaning $250 million to finance the merger of US Airways and America West, which in turn will buy an unspecified number of A350s. The Wall Street Journal had pegged the order Monday at about 20 jets.

Separately, chief Airbus salesman John Leahy vowed to deliver more than 100 firm orders within weeks, also declaring that adjustments to the design now make it an “all-new” jet rather than a derivative of the older A330.

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In making the deal with US Airways, Airbus is making the best of a bad situation.

The airline is one of Airbus’ best U.S. customers. The deal saves the carrier from bankruptcy and allows it to purchase more planes.

But the price Airbus will pay is steep. In addition to making a big loan to an airline that still might not prosper, it has agreed to postpone by three years pending orders for 30 narrow-body A320 jets.

Dan Solon, an analyst with European consultancy Avmark, said the deal showed Airbus is “very urgently concerned to buy their way into the U.S. market with the A350.”

So does the 787 now face a more serious rival?

Analysts were skeptical of the “all-new” claim. But certainly a launch at the Paris Air Show next month seems inevitable.

Air Transport World, an industry publication, quoted Leahy as promising “triple digit” firm orders for the A350 at the air show.

“Since December, we improved width, range, seat costs, economics,” Leahy was quoted as saying Wednesday to the aviation trade press in Toulouse, France, home of Airbus.

“We changed the aircraft three or four times in the past 90 days. We achieved an eight-ton weight reduction through the use of new technologies.”

“This is an all-new aircraft,” he said.

Previously, the A350 had been pitched as a derivative of the Airbus A330 — with the same fuselage but new wings and engines — up against the all-new 787.

Leahy’s assertion that Airbus had increased the airplane’s “width” briefly raised the possibility of a new fuselage, which would truly mean an entirely new airplane.

But later an Airbus spokesman punctured that idea. There is no new fuselage, the spokesman clarified — the A350 will have the same cross-section as the A330.

But the cabin “lining is now thinner, so the internal cabin width is improved a bit for passengers,” the spokesman said.

Nevertheless, though the claims to newness may be exaggerated, Leahy must announce orders at the Paris show, less than four weeks away. It seems unlikely he is claiming more than he can then deliver.

Emirates is widely expected to take 50 A350s. An order from the new US Airways puts his triple-digit goal within reach.

“I could easily imagine that Leahy shows up in Paris with A350 commitments to at least 100,” said Solon. “The A350 stands to be a serious program.”

The likely launch of the new jet in Paris will make the dispute over European government launch aid for the A350 a hot topic at the show.

“There’s the potential for a major collision between the U.S. and (Europe),” Solon said, “It could become extremely serious.”

But can an A350 launch disrupt the 787’s sales momentum?

Dinesh Keskar, Boeing’s chief salesman to India, doesn’t think so.

Keskar, who led the successful Air India campaign in which the 787 beat out the A350, dismisses Leahy’s renewed trumpeting of the A350 as a reaction to the Boeing jet’s strong sales.

The 787’s success, he believes, forced Airbus to raise the projected performance of the new plane so that it can compete; hence, the shifts in the public descriptions of the airplane.

“It seems to change every week,” Keskar said.

“For my customers, we will continue to show them an airplane that is firmly defined and has a defined date of entry into service in 2008.”

The A350, even in its current configuration, is not expected to launch until two years later.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or