Boeing Wins First Air Show Order

LE BOURGET, France (AP) -- Boeing Co. finally joined the orders race on the third day of the Paris Air Show, but its $153 million order Wednesday for two single-aisle planes paled beside the $6.25 billion already chalked up by European rival Airbus.

Yet even Airbus' numbers were diminutive compared to sales in past years. Airlines and governments strapped for cash and credit appeared to have come to the world's biggest air show as tourists instead of buyers this year, admiring the high-tech hardware but hiding their checkbooks.

With commercial orders scarce, American defense contractors elbowed into the troubled market for European military transport planes at the world's biggest air show. The salon at Le Bourget has also been haunted by unresolved questions about the crash of Air France Flight 447.

The vast bulk of the commercial orders have been for single-aisle planes, the cash cows of both Boeing and Airbus. In the current economic climate, it's harder for airlines to finance larger aircraft, which may also be harder to fill if the recession continues to dent air travel.

Kuala Lumpur low-cost airline Air Asia was the only customer to place an order for the larger aircraft: 10 A350-900 worth $2.4 billion at list prices.

Boeing won its first order Wednesday -- small but a symbolic breakthrough -- for two of its updated 737-800 jets from aircraft leasing company MC Aviation Partners, worth $153 million at list prices. MC Aviation Partners is a unit of Japan's Mitsubishi Corp.

The 737-800 is a short-to-medium range, single-aisle aircraft that seats up to 189 passengers. It competes with the Airbus A320, which has won dozens of orders at the air show as Boeing struggled to woo buyers.

Airbus won two orders Wednesday, from Philippines-based Zest Airways Inc. and French regional airline Aigle Azur.

Zest placed a firm order for a new single-aisle Airbus A320 to further its quest to expand across Southeast Asia. The list price of the jet is about $76 million, though airlines often negotiate discounts, especially in difficult economic times.

Aigle Azur ordered one A319, its first direct purchase from Airbus. Aigle Azur serves northern Africa and cities in France. The list price for the plane is about $70 million.

Airbus is suffering on the defense front, however. As delays mount for Airbus' troubled new A400M military transport airlifter, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing are offering their proven C-130J and C-17 models as alternatives to the European air forces who are in urgent need of a new transport.

"Many countries in Europe are looking at their airlift requirements and they need to make decisions in the short term," Peter Simmons, spokesman for Lockheed's Air Mobility division, said Wednesday. "We have been approached by a number of countries in Europe to fulfill that role."

Boeing also says it has held talks with members of the seven-nation consortium involved in the Airbus program.

The A400M transporter program was launched in 2003 with a joint order for 180 planes from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey. But Airbus missed a March 31 deadline for the first flight, and is negotiating new technical requirements and commercial terms with the seven buyers.

Analysts say the project could even be on the verge of collapse. The costly delay is especially painful for recession-hit governments.

Airbus suggested that despite the troubles, they might eventually be able to market the A400M to the United States.

Peter Scoffham, vice president of defense capability marketing at Airbus, said the military operation in Afghanistan has shown that U.S. forces increasingly need airlifters that can carry heavy armored vehicles. Twenty tons is the limit of their current capacity, while the A400M can carry up to 37 tons.

"There is a growing concern that they will no longer be able to carry those heavier" loads, he said. "They may well have a requirement in the foreseeable future."

Boeing and Airbus parent EADS are also setting their sights on a new bid for a U.S. Air Force contract. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to restart in the coming weeks the troubled process of replacing the Air Force's aging fleet of planes that gas up other jets in mid-flight.

Gates canceled the earlier bidding after the U.S. Government Accountability Office faulted the Air Force's selection last year of a team composed of Northrop Grumman Corp. and Airbus parent European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co., saying the service had unfairly slanted the process against Boeing.

Dave Bowman, Boeing's head of tanker programs, said everything depends on what the Air Force wants, and Boeing could offer either the 767 or 777 platforms for the tanker. In the previous bid, Boeing offered a 767.

"There's not a 777 tanker today but we've spent a lot of time over the past year studying what it would take to develop the airplane and there's been a number of changes to the commercial 777 since the previous evaluation," he said.

Ralph Crosby, CEO of EADS North America, was confident about the EADS-Northrop team's chances. "We're going to win. We won once, hey, the fundamentals haven't changed," he said earlier this week.

At a news conference Wednesday, investigators from the French air accident agency BEA said more than 400 pieces of Air France Flight 447 have been found but they still have reached no conclusions about what caused the May 31 crash that killed 228 people flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

The Paris Air Show is marking its 100th anniversary. It opened to industry on Monday, and opens to the public Friday to Sunday.

Associated Press writer Emma Vandore contributed to this report.

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