Airbus CEO Upbeat Despite Fewer Orders

Chief executive Tom Enders said Airbus was not seeing as strong a year as 2007, but noted Asian markets maintained their strength despite the U.S. slowdown.

BERLIN (AP) -- European plane maker Airbus said Wednesday that its order book remained solid at the start of this year despite a drop in demand compared to a year ago.

Speaking to reporters at the Berlin Air Show, chief executive Tom Enders said Airbus was not seeing as strong a year as it had in 2007, but that the company had 397 orders in the first four months of the year, noting that despite the slowdown in the U.S., Asian markets maintained their strength.

Also Wednesday, Airbus said Middle East airline Gulf Air placed a firm order for 35 new passenger jets that will more than double the number of Airbus planes in its fleet.

The contract was signed at the air show by Gulf Air CEO Bjorn Naf and Enders.

''Expanding our fleet with Airbus will ensure a smooth introduction of the new aircraft into our existing fleet with the best operating economics in their class and our customers will appreciate the high levels of passenger room and comfort,'' Naf said.

Gulf Air launched services in 1950 and is one of the Middle East's major international carriers serving over 40 destinations worldwide.

''Gulf Air is undergoing a rapid expansion and Airbus is delighted to partner the airline in their ambitions,'' Enders said.

The Manama, Bahrain-based airline ordered 15 A320 single-aisle planes for its regional flights and 20 A330-300s to be used on flights to Europe and Asia. It already operates 10 A320s, six A330-200s and nine A340-300s in its fleet. The price was not disclosed.

Earlier this week, Airbus said British Airways had signed an order for two Airbus A318s. British Airways said it would use the aircraft for service at London City Airport which requires steep approaches. The A318 is the largest aircraft certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency for steep approach procedures.

Despite the orders, Airbus' head of sales, John Leahy, said that higher oil prices could likely result in more order cancellations and delays, with its A320 to be the most affected. He said the company intended to stick to its production goals.

On Tuesday, JetBlue Airways Corp. said it would put off buying 21 A320s for its fleet for as long as five years.

The planes, which were originally scheduled for delivery between 2009 through 2011, will now be delivered in 2014 and 2015.

''In the face of escalating fuel costs, we believe it is essential to take a more financially conservative approach to managing our business,'' CEO Dave Barger said in a statement Tuesday.

''The aircraft deferrals we announced today will help us further moderate our growth rate in 2009 and beyond, which will enhance liquidity and defer future debt obligations.''

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