More doubt is being cast on the future of the Boeing 777-200LR as sole customer EVA Air has re-opened its ultra-long-haul aircraft studies and is considering an offer from Airbus for the rival A340-500. It comes as the carrier has agreed to lease two more Airbus A330-200s.

Industry sources say EVA has been made a "very attractive" offer from Airbus for the A340-500 and larger -600 and may scrap its 777-200LR/300ER commitments.

EVA announced a deal in mid- 2000 for up to 15 longer-range 777s, ordering seven firm examples - three -200LRs and four larger-300ERs - for delivery from 2005.

The carrier, however, is known to be unhappy about still being the only customer for the -200LR.

Senior vice president Nieh Kuo Wei confirms there is uncertainty over the -200LR and confirms that EVA is considering an Airbus offer.

"We are still in negotiation," he says. "We have not decided which aircraft we are going to purchase. The A340 offer is at a very attractive price." Nieh stresses that for now, however, EVA remains committed to the 777.

Questions about the 777-200LR's future were raised in October, when Boeing said it had suspended the twinjet variant's development programme for up to 18 months due to poor market prospects.

But it said that despite the suspension deliveries to EVA would take place as scheduled from May 2006, and the first available slots would be available in 2005. It also said the more successful -300ER would go ahead as planned, with first deliveries next year.

Boeing says it remains committed to the -200LR programme and is re-evaluating the major design release schedules. It says it plans to look at restarting the design configuration in mid-year to protect its first delivery commitment to EVA.

The 777 was not EVA's first selection for ultra-long-haul operations, primarily to the USA. Late in 1997 the carrier signed a letter of intent for six firm and six optioned A340-500/600s. Less than a year later it cancelled the tentative deal for the four-engined aircraft as the effects of the 1997-1999 Asian economic downturn began biting into profits.

EVA, previously a loyal Boeing customer, agreed last year to lease six A330-200s from General Electric Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) and buy two from Airbus. The twinjets are due for delivery from early next year to replace Boeing 767-200/300s. Sources say EVA has agreed to expand its deal with GECAS and lease two more of the type, lifting its commitment to the A330-200 to 10, including the two on order from Airbus.

Source: Flight International