Airbus still hopes for order

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NEW YORK - Airbus insisted again yesterday that it had not been excluded from the bidding on a dollars 6bn ( pounds 4bn) Saudi jet order, writes Larry Black. There were new signs that the deal with its US rivals might not be as firm as President Clinton suggested on Wednesday.

Boeing and McDonnell Douglas issued cautious statements about the deal yesterday, saying only that they expected 'significant' sales to Saudia Airlines as a result of their invitation to start negotiations in Riyadh next month.

A spokesman for the Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown - who earlier said his understanding was that the planes would be provided exclusively by the two US manufacturers - also conceded that the make-up of the eventual order was 'ultimately a question for the Saudis'.

Gulf diplomats warned that financing arrangements could result in long delays in the final order. The talks between the two US manufacturers and Saudia, scheduled to begin on 20 March, will be the start of a long process.

Washington has gone out of its way to ensure that financing will not be a problem, extending loan guarantees via the US Export-Import Bank. Preliminary commitments were extended last August for potential orders of dollars 6.2bn from Boeing and dollars 4.8bn from McDonnell Douglas.

Airbus said it was asked by the Saudis only last week to extend its most recent bid for the order until the end of the month.