Airbus Industrie and its Chinese and Singapore partners are discussing speeding up development of the proposed smaller AE316 member of the planned AE31X family of regional aircraft, in response to Boeing's relaunch of the former MD-95 twinjet as the 717-200.

It is understood that Airbus Industrie Asia (AIA) is proposing that pre-development work on the new aircraft begin in March, even if a final overall agreement has still not been reached with Aviation Industries of China (AVIC) and Singapore Technologies (STPL). "We would negotiate as we work," suggests one official.

The proposal to commit larger amounts of money to the nine-month pre-development phase ahead of an agreement has not met with universal applause from Airbus' Asian partners. It is believed that Singapore in particular is reluctant to spend much before a business case has been established.

There are also concerns from other quarters about beginning more detailed design work before the final specifications - such as weight and cost - are defined. "We're trying to move faster, but certain things must be decided first," argues a Chinese source.

Efforts to speed up the work come in the wake of the decision by Boeing to deliver the first 717 in 1999. On the current timescale, the AE31X family is not due to enter service until at least mid-2002.

AIA, AVIC and STPL had been struggling with a range of issues in an effort to reach a final joint-venture accord before the end of 1997, but failed to do so. Under the latest revised schedule, the pre-development phase is to lead to the launch of full-scale development in 1999, a first flight in mid- 2001 and entry into service 12 months later.

Boeing, in the meantime, has decided to commit to completing development of the 717 and delivering the first 100-seat jet airliner to AirTran in 1999. This is leading to calls within Airbus to get moving with the 95- to 105-seat AE316, or risk forfeiting the projected 3,000-aircraft market to Boeing.

Klaus Nittinger, managing director of BMW Rolls-Royce, which provides its BR715 to power the 717 and is a contender for the AE31X, has hinted at the problems for the partners. "The Chinese do not have a clear idea whether they are going to be able to make money with such a programme. If they find the programme is not going to break even, but they still want to do it, then who is going to pay for it? The Singaporeans are sceptical, because they do not see a business case for the aircraft," he says.

Source: Flight International