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Airbus relieved as British Airways orders A380s

It is honours even between Airbus and Boeing after round one of British Airways' long-haul fleet-renewal evaluation, with the airline deciding to split the deal between the two airframers. However, despite losing out to the rival 787 at the small end, Airbus will feel relieved that the UK flag carrier has finally endorsed the A380 after a decade-long courtship.

BA has placed orders and options for 19 A380s after what the airline's commercial director Robert Boyle told Flight International, flightglobal.com's sister publication, was a close-run battle with Boeing's smaller, but "less risky" alternative, the 747-8. "It was a hard call for us right up until the end," he says.

Boeing's prize was a deal for up to 42 787-8s and -9s and the two new types - all of which are Roll-Royce-powered - will replace 20 of the airline's 57 747-400s and 14 of its 21 767-300ERs.

The rival manufacturers now have around a year to convince BA that they have the superior offering in the 300- to 350-seat "big twin" class as BA has deferred the decision on replacement of the remainder of its 747-400 fleet to early 2009.

The BA deal

36 firm ($7.9 billion)/25 options

A380: 12 firm ($4.2 billion)/7 options

Delivery: 2012 to 2014

Boeing 787-8/9: 24 firm ($3.7 billion)/18 options

Delivery: 2010 to 2013

Note: values based on list prices

The A380 eventually won the day despite Boeing's perceived advantage as the incumbent supplier, says Boyle. "Undoubtedly the A380 is a more complex aircraft for us to introduce than the 747-8 would have been, and a higher risk as it's a bigger aircraft."

But Boyle says that the "numbers" ultimately came out in favour of Airbus, while its noise performance was "also a significant factor for us in the context of Heathrow expansion, as the A380 is QC [Quota Count] 0.5 on arrival at Heathrow versus QC1 for the 747-8".

He adds that other factors working for the A380 were "the benefits of the slot efficiency of the bigger aircraft", and the fact that its larger cabin size provides "more flexibility to innovate".

Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia believes the BA A380 deal was a must-win for Airbus, and the size of the order is yet more proof that the ultra-large airliner is aimed at "niche" market.

"It would have been disastrous [for Airbus] if BA hadn't ordered it," he says. "Why couldn't BA, operating from a congested international hub, put more than a dozen A380s into its fleet? This reinforces the argument that it is a niche aircraft."

As the world's biggest 747-400 operator, BA's decision to eliminate the new -8 variant from all its future plans is "a blow" for that programme, says Aboulafia, but that the programme could quickly be turned around: "At the moment it is just Lufthansa and a bunch of cargo airlines that have ordered it, but there are a few more opportunities, and an order from Cathay or Emirates could easily rectify the situation."

Likely destinations on BA's A380 network include Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Singapore, points in India and US West Coast cities Los Angeles and San Francisco, says the airline. Significantly New York does not figure in the plan for the moment.

BA was able to secure some early slots for 787 deliveries as the campaign to sell the aircraft began over a year ago, and it was this availability that gave Boeing an upper hand in the 767 replacement evaluation, says Boyle.

"The A350 wasn't available [until 2013] so Airbus proposed a blend of A330 interim aircraft bridging to A350s. This gave them a hurdle in terms of the efficiency of the A330 against the 787 and the transition costs of an interim aircraft, which they couldn't overcome."

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