Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

AIRBUS IS CLOSE to winning the hard-fought battle to sell ValuJet its first new aircraft. The deal, which is expected to involve around 25 A319s, with an option for a further 25, would be a major coup for Airbus, coming in the face of fierce competition from McDonnell Douglas (MDC) and Boeing.

Negotiations are in their final stages, with a decision expected by the end of September, although ValuJet stresses that it will only sign an order if the deal is sufficiently attractive.

"If we can get to the right price, we'll place an order, but if not, the other two manufacturers are still very interested," says the carrier. The final package will have to include an interim fleet plan to satisfy ValuJet's growth targets as it waits for the new aircraft.

Since starting two years ago, ValuJet has based its explosive growth exclusively on used MDC DC-9-10s, building the fleet at a rate of around 18 aircraft a year.

Initially, the low-cost carrier had ruled out purchasing new aircraft, but decided to open talks after manufacturers showed "...willingness to negotiate on price".

DC-9-10s are also becoming more scare and expensive to acquire. ValuJet has purchase agreements on five more aircraft, due to join the 34-strong fleet by the start of 1996.

Speed of delivery is understood to be a key factor in ValuJet's discussions with the manufacturers. The A319 will be available quicker than its rivals, with the programme's first deliveries, beginning in April 1996 although ValuJet is interested in the IAE V2500-engined version, which will not be available until the end of 1996.

Deliveries of Boeing's new 737-600 are not due until the second half of 1998, while the McDonnell Douglas MD-95, for which ValuJet would have been a tailor-made launch customer, could not be available until late 1997.

ValuJet may indirectly give McDonnell Douglas a chance to launch the MD-95, however, as Atlanta rival Delta Air Lines considers setting up its own low-cost operation to fend off the competition in the 100-seat market.

Source: Flight International