‘Game on’ for Boeing, Airbus widebody jet rivalry

Airbus worked up a comeback in orders for its A350 wide-body a day after Boeing Co. took a direct swipe at the European competitor’s latest airliner by introducing a stretched Dreamliner.

Airbus won an order Wednesday from Air France-KLM Group for 25 A350-900s, valued at $7.2 billion, and options for the same amount, clinching a deal that had dragged out because of a maintenance dispute with Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc. It also signed an accord with SriLankan Airlines Ltd. for four A350s.

The Dreamliner was the focus of attention on the first days of the Paris Air Show, picking up $30 billion of orders and commitments for the 787-10, including from Singapore Airlines Ltd. before the expo. Boeing has rebuilt the 787’s cachet after a three-month grounding amid battery flaws, saying it’s back in the ring with a a more-sophisticated portfolio than Airbus’s.

“As we say in America, game on now,” Boeing Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “Our strategy in the wide-body area is to have a broader product offering than our competitor.”

Confidence Vote

Airbus had held an early promise to dominate the show following the A350 maiden flight last week. The first flyable airliner will perform a second tour today from Toulouse in southwestern France, where the company is based. Airbus is also is working on a United Airlines order for 10 additional A350s and possible other deals at the 50th Paris Air Show, which runs until June 21, people familiar with the planning have said.

The 787-10 won a vote of confidence from Steven Udvar-Hazy, the chairman of Air Lease Corp., who said the composite-fuselage aircraft offers better fuel economy than the Airbus plane when identically configured. Udvar-Hazy agreed to pick up 30 of the new Dreamliners in Paris, after buying the identical number of A350 last year at the Farnborough Air Show in the U.K.

Boeing has booked 102 orders for the most stretched type of its Dreamliner. The orders include 10 from General Electric Co.’s aircraft-leasing subsidiary, and 20 from United, with 10 conversions of smaller Dreamliners. British Airways agreed to take 12, pending shareholder approval of a deal announced April 3 to buy 18 more 787s.

Building Following

Boeing, which has vowed to “box in” the A350 with larger and smaller models, still has to complete that strategy as its bigger 777X awaits formal introduction. McNerney said he’s optimistic he will commit later this year.

The U.S. planemaker is “back on track” with its strategy, said Akbar Al Baker, the CEO at Qatar Airways Ltd., who is the lead customer for the A350 while eschewing the largest Dreamliner.

The 777X, which will come in a 400-plus seat version and a long-range model capable of connecting Sydney to Rome, already has a following. Tewolde Gebremariam, head of Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise and one of the first Dreamliner operators, said he is waiting to buy the plane, as did Malaysian Airline Systems Bhd.

Tim Clark, president of Emirates and the largest operator of the 777, has urged Boeing to expedite its plans for the upgrade version. Emirates typically flies its aircraft for about a dozen years, and any delay on the 777X risks jeopardizing Clark’s fleet plans, which also includes the largest collection of Airbus A380 superjumbo jets.

“The only problem we have with the 777X is that it’s a bit late,” Clark said in an interview in Paris. “Slippage is endemic to the industry.”

Airbus has booked 613 firm orders for its A350, with the mid-sized version due to enter service next year. Airbus says the three-member family will target both the Dreamliners and the 777, with its seat range from 270 to 350 passengers.

“We are convinced that we have positioned our aircraft right in the center and right in the sweet spot,” Tom Enders, the CEO of Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence &Space Co., said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “Game on.”

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