Airbus signs up Emirates and Air France in superjumbo war

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The battle of the super-jumbos took to the skies yesterday as Airbus Industrie disclosed that it had launch orders worth $5bn for the 555-seater A3XX aircraft.

The battle of the super-jumbos took to the skies yesterday as Airbus Industrie disclosed that it had launch orders worth $5bn for the 555-seater A3XX aircraft.

On the opening day of the Farnborough Air Show, Airbus announced orders worth $3.5 bn for at least 17 of the double-decker aircraft and promised that orders for a total of 22 A3XXs would be confirmed by the end of the week. The Middle-East carrier Emirates is becoming the launch customer for the A3XX with a $1.5bn order for five passenger versions and two freighter versions of the A3XX, while Air France unveiled an order worth more than $2bn for at least ten A3XXs.

Boeing, whose monopoly over the jumbo jet market is threatened by the A3XX, hit back saying it could be ready to launch a stretched version of its 747 in the next six to nine months.

The US aircraft manufacturer said the 522-seater 747X would cost $4bn to develop - about a quarter of the A3XX's development costs - and could be in service by 2005, 12 months ahead of the Airbus aircraft.

The A3XX programme is receiving £530m of launch aid from the UK Government and will safeguard at least 22,000 UK jobs. The French transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot, said France planned Ffr90m of support this year and a further Ffr8bn by 2005. BAe Systems, which has a 20 per cent stake in Airbus and makes the wings, estimated that the aircraft would safeguard 8,000 jobs directly and a further 14,000 in supply companies. Ministers from the four Airbus governments - Britain, France, Germany and Spain - said that the launch aid for the programme fully complied with the 1992 agreement between the US and European Union governing financial support for large civil aircraft.

Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said, after a meeting with his counterparts, that Europe was more than happy to supply the US with information to demonstrate compliance. The US has threatened to take its objections to the World Trade Organisation, which does not allow state aid for commercial aircraft.

Airbus needs between 50 and 60 firm orders to launch the A3XX - the most expensive aircraft programme in history.

The stretched version of the plane will be capable of carrying up to 800 passengers and could sport a range of facilities from on-board shopping arcades and crÿches to business centres, gynmasiums and even casinos.

The oil-rich Emirates airline will operate its fleet of A3XXs on routes to London, the US and Asia-Pacific. They will seat 575 passengers and enter service in 2006. Rolls-Royce is strongly positioned to power the Emirates aircraft with its Trent 900 engine.

A number of Airbus customers, including Lufthansa, British Midland and Austrian Airlines, have expressed concern that other Airbus programmes may be neglected because of the effort, money and time devoted to the A3XX. But Noel Forgeard, chief executive of Airbus, pledged: "Our absolute priority is to stand behind our existing products. We will never compromise on that."

Including yesterday's A3XX deals, Airbus expects to announce orders for around 200 aircraft at Farnborough, putting it on course to sell more than 500 planes this year and secure more than 50 per cent of the market. Boeing, meanwhile opened the show by announcing 120 orders for its 737 and 777 aircraft. The deals with General Electric's financial services arm and California-based leasing company ILFC, include the first orders for the stretched 777.

Boeing also released its market forecast estimating that the world's airlines would order 22,300 aircraft worth $1.5 trillion over the next 20 years.