Firm plane orders at the Farnborough show, the biggest on the aviation calendar, reached $55.2 billion on the third day of the event, with European manufacturer Airbus ahead of its U.S. rival Boeing

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FARNBOROUGH, England — Asian airlines joined their counterparts in the Middle East and plane leasing companies in a buying spree at the Farnborough International Airshow on Wednesday, as cash-strapped carriers from Europe and the U.S. continued to keep their hands in their pockets.

Firm plane orders at the show, the biggest on the aviation calendar, reached $55.2 billion on the third day of the event, with European manufacturer Airbus ahead of its U.S. rival Boeing with orders for 241 planes worth $36.95 billion at list prices.

Boeing used a previously registered, but unidentified, order from Malaysia Airlines for 35 737-800s to boost its show tally to 152 orders worth some $16.79 billion at catalog prices.

Orders for Embraer, the world’s third largest plane maker, and Russian manufacturer Sukhoi rounded out the total.

Airlines usually negotiate discounts to the official list prices for planes, and while all the deal makers are declining to comment, analysts expect the discounts to have been deeper than usual this time round with soaring oil prices and the credit crunch crimping demand from many quarters.

With fears ahead of Farnborough of a mere trickle of orders, Asian and Middle Eastern airlines and leasing companies have stepped to the fore, pushing the combined Boeing and Airbus total to within a more respectable distance of the 506 orders the pair took at the Le Bourget air show last year.

Carriers from those regions are banking on a degree of insulation from the global credit squeeze and expected growth in infrastructure and tourism to justify their purchases, while the leasing companies are relying on the likelihood that many carriers elsewhere will be keen to budget by renting, rather than buying, planes until the economic climate improves.

South Korea’s Asiana Airlines kicked off orders on Wednesday with a deal for 30 of its medium capacity, long-range A350 XWB jets for a catalog price of $7.2 billion before discounts. The airline also took an option for another ten A350 jets.

Fellow Asian carrier Malaysia Airlines announced an order for 35 Boeing 737-800s valued at $2.6 billion at list prices. It also booked purchase rights for 20 more aircraft. Boeing said the order had already been registered in its books as an unidentified order for several weeks.

The carrier said the purchase would allow it to expand to points that were previously not economically viable.

“This supports our aim toward more agile and fuel-efficient aircraft for our core network in the ASEAN region, including the domestic sector in Malaysia and the fast growing economies of China and India,” said the airline’s chief financial officer, Tengku Azmil Zahruddin.

He added that the carrier believed it was a good time to buy, noting that airlines often made the mistake of buying in boom times at high prices, only for demand to fall away. Delivery of the aircraft will take place in 2010, when Zahruddin said Malaysia Airlines expected a brighter economic situation.

Boeing also announced that leasing company Aviation Capital Group ordered 15 next-generation Boeing 737-700s worth $934 million at list prices.

Aviation Capital and a unit of Dubai Aerospace Enterprise announced deals earlier in the show for a combined 123 Airbus aircraft. DAE added on Wednesday that it will acquire 18 Boeing freighter aircraft from Emirates Airline in a split purchase and leaseback deal.

Plane makers have been using the show to push the line that the current financial outlook could spur an industry shift toward cleaner, more efficient planes and the event projected a green theme on Wednesday, with executives from Airbus, Boeing and British Airways attending a summit on “sustainable aviation.”

Industry leaders at the summit struck a tone between conciliatory and defensive on global warming Wednesday — pledging to make flying more fuel-efficient but bridling at a European Union emissions trading scheme they see as unfair to European carriers.

Boeing has touted its 787 jet for its greater fuel efficiency while Airbus has done the same with its A380, but both have been hampered by lengthy production delays.

Both carriers have picked up new orders for those planes at Farnborough, including sales to Etihad Airways, the state carrier of the United Arab Emirates, which has made the biggest order by an airline so far at Farnborough, splitting an order for 100 aircraft between Airbus and Boeing worth $20 billion at list prices.

Other deals have been signed by Qatar Airways, FlyDubai, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Arik Air since the show began on Monday.

The Boeing air show score did not include an order from Air China Ltd. for 45 jets with a list price of $6.3 billion announced by the carrier in Beijing.

Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier said the company was pleased Air China announced its intent to buy the airplanes, but declined to confirm details of the deal. She referred questions to Air China.

“We’re looking forward to finalizing our negotiations with our good customer,” she said.

Almost 1,500 exhibitors from 35 countries are showing off the latest in aviation technology at Farnborough. The air show runs through July 18 for aerospace professionals only; public days are July 19 and 20.