HIGH-RANKING executives from Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas are due in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 5 May to brief board members of South African Airways (SAA), and its parent company Transnet, on their proposals to fulfil a planned R4 billion ($1 billion fleet requirement.

The meeting is the latest step in an increasingly fierce battle between the three manufacturers to secure an order for around ten long-range aircraft. A decision is expected in the middle of this year.

Tenders were submitted on 4 April. Since then, the airframe companies have been stepping up the pace of the bidding, culminating in the visit by the Boeing 777, in United Airlines colours, to Cape Town and Johannesburg on the 20 and 21 April.

Earlier in April, MDC president Harry Stonecipher visited the country, where he had discussions with local state-owned aerospace company Denel on a potentially large offset package.

MDC, which is offering the standard MD-11 to SAA, and not the long range MD-11ER version, is reckoned by many observers to have ground to make up in the order battle - unlike its rivals it has no aircraft in the SAA fleet.

Boeing, meanwhile, declines to discuss details of its bid, but is believed to be concentrating its sales efforts on the 287,150kg (632,500lb) gross-weight version of the "B" market 777. A number of 747-400s are also understood to be included in the company's proposal, though the 767-300ER does not now figure.

The Airbus offer centres on the A340-200, although the growth version of the aircraft also figures in the bid.

The bids show that SAA is primarily looking for proposals to meet expected growth of business on long thin routes to South America, Asia and Australia. The airline will almost certainly take the chance to boost its 747-400 fleet with at least two further aircraft of the type, however, as it starts to retire its fleet of older 747s.

The Airbus approach, has been more-low key than those of Boeing and MDC, in the run-up to the final bidding, although Airbus boss Jean Pierson may visit the country soon, as part of an educational programme which the company is funding in the townships.

SAA is expected to present its recommendations to the Government in June. Whether Pretoria will seek to influence the purchase is unclear - although Stonecipher's offset strategy clearly depends on some move in that direction. The current row between Pretoria and Washington over an embargo on the use of US technology in South African defence equipment would not be helpful to US interests if the Government opts to get involved. South Africa Public Enterprise Minister Stella Sigcau has visited all the companies in the last few months.

New South African carrier Avia Airlines plans to start services between Johannesburg and London on 9 May, using a Boeing 747SP leased from SAA. The carrier will operate three times a week. Airline owner Gert de Klerk has been running cargo airlines Wonder Air and Avia Air for the last ten years.

Source: Flight International