UK low-cost carrier follows US operator JetBlue in call for extra capacity as it commits to 240 Airbus aircraft

Airbus is coming under increasing pressure to develop a larger version of the A320, following its commitment last week from EasyJet for 240 A319s. The hitherto all-Boeing 737 operator has immediately become one of Airbus's larger customers, and is pushing for a slightly stretched version of the 180-seat A320.

Although the London Luton-based low-cost carrier's 120 firm orders are for the smaller 150-seat A319, the airline can take later deliveries, as well as a second batch of 120 aircraft as the larger 180-seat A320 or 220-seat A321. However, EasyJet has followed the lead of US A320 operator JetBlue Airways, which earlier this year called for Airbus to develop a variant in between these models.

"Ideally we would like two additional seat rows on the A320," says EasyJet chief executive Ray Webster. This would increase one-class seating to around 192, giving Airbus a direct competitor to the Boeing 737-800, which seats 189 passengers.

These words echo earlier comments by David Neeleman, chief executive of New York-based JetBlue. The low-fare airline, which has 31 A320s in service and a further 54 on order, wants something bigger but feels the 40-seat step up to the A321 is too ambitious.

Responding to Webster's comments, Airbus executive vice-president customer affairs John Leahy says there are "no immediate plans to increase capacity on the A320".

Contract details for EasyJet's firm order, which is worth about $6.1 billion at list prices, are being finalised. The selection was made after an intense battle with Boeing, and Webster says the purchase price per seat is 30% less than that paid for the 737-700s it ordered four years ago, adjusted for inflation.

Deliveries of the firm orders will take place over five years starting next September. CFM International and International Aero Engines are locked in an engine competition, which should be finalised by the end of next month. The second batch of 120 aircraft, which can be ordered before 2012, are price-protected delivery positions, rather than options, and not subject to deposits or cancellation penalties.

The all-Boeing 737 operator flies 64 737s (45 -300s and 19 -700s - including those operated by subsidiary Go) and has 14 more -700s on order. The airline intends to retain 32 -700s and 12 -300s, but will phase out its 10 owned -300s by 2004.

EasyJet says it has no plans to move to an all-Airbus fleet and will continue with a dual supplier strategy for future aircraft tenders to ensure that bids are competitive.

Source: Flight International