Julian Moxon/PARIS

The Airbus Industrie A3XX is facing further delay as potential customer airlines, confronted by increasingly tough market conditions, retreat from committing to the aircraft in time to support an already delayed late 1999 launch deadline.

While the airlines consider their options on timing, the European consortium is believed to be pushing ahead with a plan to seek approval for the 480/660-seat family from its partners Aerospatiale, British Aerospace, Casa and DaimlerChrysler Aerospace for authority to offer the aircraft.

Although there continues to be some divergence of opinion among the four companies over approval, one industry source says a meeting on 10 February should resolve the issue one way or the other. One possibility is that Airbus could push back the launch date but commit itself to offering the product in the market.

The approval process has been decoupled from the issue of creating a Single Corporate Entity at Airbus. The two events had previously been tied, but continuing wrangling over the creation of the company has led to a decision by Airbus to separate them.

Last year, Jurgen Thomas, senior vice-president of Airbus' large aircraft division, said the programme was on schedule for a "substantial decision" in February that would launch the industrialisation programme and enable the consortium to make offers to the airlines in the second quarter.

But market interest may be waning in the short term. British Airways, one of the 19 airlines helping to design the A3XX and previously touted as a possible launch customer for up to 23 aircraft, has made it clear that for the time being, its strategy has shifted away from ultra high capacity aircraft. "We're still a A3XX supporter, but we understand the circumstances that are leading Airbus to review the launch date," says a senior source within BA.

Another major A3XXpotential customer, Japan Airlines, says: "We might feasibly have a requirement after 2010. Obviously we are interested in a bigger aircraft-but for the time being, our main concern is fixing our financial foundation, so we are having to put the brakes on investment over the next three or four years."

All Nippon Airways, also on the A3XX design team, says that although it is looking at the aircraft, it has "no plans to add them to our fleet, given the state of the Japanese economy". It says the A3XX "could be advantageous in the long term, especially as slots are redistributed on high density routes".

Airbus confirms that airline commitments are a "precondition for a go-ahead of a programme of such magnitude", but declines to be specific about a revised launch date. "It is better to take a few months more to finalise and get the necessary commitments," it says. The current in-service date is 2004.

BA chairman Bob Ayling has already pointed to a need to compete on the basis of "frequency rather than capacity" as the carrier fights to improve yields from business traffic by offering more flights, and flexibility, on its major routes. This led to the decision in late 1998 to swap some Boeing 747 orders for 777s.

It says the A3XX will be ordered only when its seat mile costs are at least 15-20% lower than those of the 747. An industry source says Airbus is within a "couple of per cent" of meeting the costs requirement.

The A3XXwas delayed by almost a year in late 1997 when Airbus decided that the technologies to meet the direct operating cost reductions demanded by airlines had not been established.

Source: Flight International