Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON Guy Norris/LOS ANGELES

Airbus Industrie has moved a step closer to the launch of its new 100-seat programme, with a commitment from International Lease Finance (ILFC) for up to 30 A318s. The deal has taken on more significance because it apparently signals a decision by the giant US leasing company to abandon plans to buy the rival Boeing 717 twinjet.

ILFC's memorandum of understanding with Airbus calls for deliveries of its A318s to begin in late 2002, making it one of the first customers to receive the Pratt & Whitney PW6000-powered aircraft. Airbus says that the ILFC commitment for the A318 remains subject to the industrial launch of the short fuselage A320 derivative, which is expected in early 1999.

Airbus says in a statement that ILFC has taken "a corporate decision to select the A318" as the 100/120-seat offering in its portfolio, suggesting that the company, which traditionally buys competing aircraft types from Boeing and Airbus, will not order the 717 as had previously been expected.

ILFC chairman Leslie Gonda seems to back this up, saying "-our decision in favour of the A318 is a logical step in the development of our portfolio. President Steven Udvar-Hazy adds that the move "-reflects the market's preference for efficient, new technology aircraft that are members of an integrated family of common products".

Boeing, however, refutes the suggestion that ILFC has dropped plans for the 717-200. "We're still talking with ILFC," says John Feren, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice-president of the Americas. "They haven't closed the door on the 717, but right now we haven't reached enough critical mass to satisfy them."

Feren's optimism hinges partly on the outcome of "between six and 10 competitions that should be decided between now and June". Although none have been specifically identified, they are thought to include competitions for Air Canada, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, Saudia Arabian, Aeromexico and Aserca Airlines.

While Boeing says the ILFC talks are still alive, the manufacturer is also believed to be negotiating a possible 717 deal with lessors GATX and Tombo Aviation. Air Tran Airways and Bavaria Leasing are the only customers at present.

Source: Flight International