BA chief hints he may buy new Boeing, not Airbus

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The Independent Online

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, delivered a snub to Airbus yesterday by saying there were "big question marks" over its A380 superjumbo and indicating the airline was potentially interested in buying the stretched Boeing 747 about to be launched by its rival.

BA is reviewing its long-haul fleet requirements and is expected to reach decisions on replacement aircraft by Easter. But speaking en route to India, where BA has just begun serving its fifth city, Bangalore, Mr Walsh appeared to rule out a purchase of the A380 for the foreseeable future. "We are pleased we haven't got one on order at the moment," he said. "It is too big an aircraft. There is a big question mark beside it."

Sales of the A380 so far stand at about 139 but Airbus needs orders for 250 and possibly 300 if the dollar remains weak, to break even on the programme and pay back the £2bn in launch aid received from its four partner governments.

BA has 57 Boeing 747-400s in its fleet, the oldest of which is 16 years. They seat 413 passengers in a standard three-class configuration. It is considering exchanging some for the new 747 Advanced, which will have an extra 30-40 seats.

Boeing is expected to launch the aircraft this month. Initially, most orders will be for the freighter version. The Luxembourg carrier Cargolux has said it wants to buy 10 and Qantas and Singapore Airlines are also thought to be likely customers.

BA is serving Bangalore in southern India five times a week using Boeing 777s. India is BA's fastest-growing market and its biggest intercontinental destination after the US. By summer, BA will operate 42 flights a week to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, carrying about one million passengers a year.

Mr Walsh said BA was keen to go to daily flights to Bangalore and was aiming to launch services to Hyderabad and Cochin as the Indian airline market was further liberalised.

BA has also agreed a tie-up with the domestic Indian carrier Air Sahara covering code-sharing, pricing, lounge access and frequent flyer programmes to help feed traffic on to its routes to London. Air Sahara is part of the privately owned Sahara Group, a diversified industrial company whose interests span retailing, construction and IT. It may become one of BA's partners in the oneworld alliance.

Mr Walsh also played down the prospects of BA merging with Spain's Iberia, in which it holds a 9 per cent stake.