Clinton jumps gun on Saudi aircraft order: Airbus still in the running to win contract

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THE UNITED STATES claimed yesterday to have won a much-coveted dollars 6bn Saudi aircraft order for its two big jet manufacturers. But it appears the rival European Airbus consortium has not in fact been excluded from the bidding.

President Clinton and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, announced the agreement together, with the US president boasting that it would help Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, and create or save thousands of jobs. But Prince Bandar discussed neither the size nor value of any eventual order, saying only that he carried letters from King Fahd inviting the two manufacturers to the kingdom 'to start negotiating the purchase of a substantial number of aircraft'.

A spokesman for Airbus, which has been engaged in a year-long battle with its American rivals over the Saudia Airlines order, said later that despite the implication of the President's announcement no contracts had been signed. Boeing also conceded that it had 'no deal' and that 'no specific numbers' had been confirmed.

Boeing's understanding is still that the total order - probably the largest any airline producer will receive for at least the next two years - will range between dollars 3bn and dollars 5bn, a Boeing spokesman said. 'But we are very happy to hear the President say that Boeing and McDonnell Douglas will be getting a dollars 6bn order,' he added.

'Our only understanding is that we have been invited back to continue negotiating for the sale of our planes sometime around 20 March.'

The Airbus North America spokesman, David Venz, said the consortium had recently been invited by the Saudis 'to extend its last offer to 1 March'.

US administration officials indicated that Boeing would get about 60 per cent of the order for 60 to 66 aircraft. The Boeing portion would include 10 to 12

B-747s as well as versions of its new 777s and its smaller 737s.

McDonnell Douglas would receive orders for 25 of its small MD-90 twin-jets as well as an unspecified number of its large MD-11s, some of which would be included in the flight that carries the Saudi royal family.

Yesterday's announcement marks the second time American officials have jumped the gun on the Saudi order, apparently hoping to take political credit for the sale.