ANALYSIS: Cathay A350-1000 deal redraws big-twin battle lines

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Cathay Pacific has redrawn the battle lines of the transatlantic 'big twin' rivalry, giving the stagnated Airbus A350-1000 programme a long-awaited confidence vote with an order for 26 of the type.

Airbus chief Fabrice Brégier insists that the twinjet ordered by the Hong Kong-based carrier has the same specification as the aircraft unveiled at the Paris air show last year following an extensive redesign.

"We didn't change it [for Cathay]," Brégier says. "We don't intend to change it."

Cathay chief John Slosar says the aircraft specification - a capability of operating 8,400nm - will enable it to "connect more and more important cities worldwide directly with Hong Kong".

Its order gives Airbus ammunition to counter the objections from customers of the previous -1000 iteration, notably Emirates and Qatar Airways who spoke enthusiastically about Boeing's modernised 777X proposal.

"[Airbus] produced a new specification for the [A350-1000] which, in my view, fell short of where it should be," says Emirates president Tim Clark.

But he says Emirates is "very interested" in the 777X. He says the 777 is a "great aircraft" and wants to ensure a replacement is available by the time the first -300ERs drop out of the fleet around 2017.

"Two years ago they had it in a position that we were very interested in [a 777 successor]. We asked them to do a few more things, they've been working on that," says Clark. He adds that Boeing must not hesitate on the 777X but "get the job done".

"Faffing around and waiting to see what [Airbus] does to the -1000 or the -900 makes no sense at all. If you've a good product and people are interested in it, you go for it - don't worry about what the competition is doing."

Despite the Cathay order, and Brégier's defiance, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker says: "In my opinion they will have to relaunch [the-1000] again. Whatever enhancements we - as the largest A350 customer - push through will benefit everyone else who has ordered that aircraft."

He says he has told Airbus that the new -1000 is "not very much apart" from the Boeing 777-300ER when comparing fuel-burn, capacity and performance.

Qatar Airways is due to be the first recipient of the A350-1000, in 2017, and Al Baker warns that if the delivery date slips again Airbus could find itself fighting a worthy competitor in the 777X, adding that it could attract Qatar's interest.

"If Airbus is not very careful [with the -1000 delivery schedule] Boeing may have a similar aircraft available. In my opinion Boeing will only make that aeroplane if it is going to better than the competition. And we could be interested."

Brégier insists the -1000 will fend off any 777X challenge: "As an all-new design, it will outperform existing aircraft in its size category on every count - as well as any future derivatives of those aircraft."

Airbus chief operating officer for customers John Leahy states, somewhat acerbically, that previous -1000 customers - which also include Etihad Airways and Asiana - do not necessarily have to switch to the revamped model.

"They could stay at the lower gross weight," he says. "We can make that less-capable version. Cathay looked at it - and said 'no'."

US lessor Air Lease's high-profile chief, Steve Udvar-Hazy, says the Cathay deal "should make Boeing take notice", but believes that - despite Tim Clark's urging - the airframer does not want to act "prematurely", before it can achieve a 12-15% cut in specific fuel consumption.

Kuwaiti lessor ALAFCO - already an A350-900 customer - has disclosed that it is in talks over the A350-1000. Its chief, Ahmad Al-Zabin, says the company "will continue to study the economics" of the type, but has not yet received any expressions of interest from operators. "If we had, we'd have signed an order [at Farnborough]," he says.