British Airways expects to finalise its long-haul fleet replacement plans by the end of the year, and views the decision as more important than the first part of its selection process concluded in 2007.

BA placed orders for 12 Airbus A380s and 24 Boeing 787s last year to replace some of its long-haul aircraft at London Heathrow. The A380s will replace part of the airline's 747-400 fleet and chief executive Willie Walsh says the second component of the order is "a key decision because it's the replacement of the bulk of the 747 fleet so it's probably even more significant than the ones we've already taken".

Speaking to Flight International sister publication Airline Business, Walsh said the decision on the remaining part of the long-haul fleet renewal plan will "probably" be taken at the end of 2008. "We'll aim for the end of this year," he says.

BA is evaluating "big twins", with the Airbus A350 XWB and "Boeing's plans in relation to the 777" being examined, says Walsh. He adds that it is unlikely that the Boeing 747-8 - which was beaten by the A380 in last year's evaluation - will feature in the second part of the order, although he declines to completely rule it out.

BA is now studying alternatives for some of the Heathrow-based aircraft that will be replaced by the A380s and 787s, with a move to London Gatwick being considered to enable it to expand long-haul operations at its second-largest base.

"We will look to grow our long-haul operations at Gatwick - it may be that aircraft we had looked to replace at Heathrow, we might move to Gatwick in the short-term because all of our aircraft are still relatively young.

He adds: "We were looking to accelerate the replacement but there are opportunities for us to grow our long-haul business at Gatwick, and that's one of the things that we will be looking at."