State-owned Indian Airlines has take the first step towards a massive overhaul of its fleet by informing manufacturers in late November that it is to replace its ageing fleet of Boeing 737-200 and A300B2/B4s.

The 15 737s are operated by the recently created Indian Airlines subsidiary, Alliance Air, while the ten A300s remain part of the parent company's fleet, which also includes some 30 A320s.

The programme may be in its infancy, but the two protaganists, Airbus and Boeing, are already turning their minds to a competition likely to be run until late 1997. The exact timing could owe much to the state of the airline's ailing finances and the Indian Government's willingness to push it through.

President of Airbus Industrie India Dr Kiran Rao says that one option in the bid would be to buy back the old A300s and offer at least some of them to the growing local cargo market. Rao would like to interest Hindustan Aeronautics in undertaking the conversion to cargo aircraft using kits supplied by an Airbus partner, thought to be Daimler-Benz Aerospace Airbus.

Airbus is offering the A330 and Boeing the 777-200 to meet a requirement for a 300-seat aircraft in a two-class configuration. The European aircraft, at 295 seats, meets that part of the specification better than does its 350-seat US rival. Boeing India president Dr Dinesh Keska acknowledges that the Boeing contender is larger than required, but he will argue that the 777 gives Indian Airlines the potential to grow at a faster rate, in line with the rapidly rising Indian passenger market.

The Alliance Air programme is for between 18 and 20 aircraft, with the A319 and Boeing 737 being the two main contenders. Keskar says that he will offer the existing 737-500 and the next-generation -600, allowing pilots to maintain commonality with the existing fleet. Rao also makes the commonality argument, but this time with reference to Indian's A320s and, he hopes, eventually the A330.

On top of this, Alliance is also looking at the turboprop market, where it is aiming to buy new aircraft, probably chosen from the Saab 2000 or AI(R) ATR 42 -500.

The other big competition in India is the longstanding plan to replace India's old 747-200s with a new medium-capacity, long-range aircraft. On offer are the A340, the 777 and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11. At stake is an order for ten aircraft and 13 options, worth in excess of $2 billion.

A subcommittee of the Air India board is now completing a re-evaluation of the bids after the original evaluation - said to have favoured the 777 just in front of Airbus - was dumped for no apparent reason. A board decision, followed by Government approval is expected in 1997.

An earlier decision on the airline's request for three new A310-300s is expected to be considered in the next few weeks. Airbus is trying to assemble a package, which ties together a current Air India requirement for three dry-leased A310s with the purchase of new aircraft.

Source: Flight International