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ANALYSIS: Farnborough will be crucial time in re-engined narrowbody fight

Airbus recently firmed two outstanding orders for A320neo family aircraft, with Norwegian Air Shuttle committing to 100 A320neos and Air Lease taking 36 of the re-engined jets, including 20 of the larger A321neos.

This takes Airbus's total firm orders for Neos to 1,425 from 26 customers. Meanwhile, Boeing has gained what it describes as over 1,000 "commitments and orders" from 16 customers for its CFM International Leap-1B-powered 737 Max, of which 451 are firm orders.

But although existing commitments have been firmed, there have been few recent new orders. The narrowbody market is in "a state of stasis" as Teal Group vice-president, analysis Richard Aboulafia describes it. But with the Farnborough air show around the corner, Aboulafia believes the next few months will be "crucial" as more orders come through, noting that it will be "a big show for the narrowbodies".

Boeing had previously dubbed 2012 as "the year of the Max" and despite the lack of recent order activity the airframer remains quietly confident that this remains the case.

With competitions underway from US carriers Delta Air Lines and United Airlines and existing 737 operator Pegasus Airlines of Turkey, Boeing can almost certainly count on a number of big deals in the coming months.

Orders so far for both manufacturers' products have been partly driven by the need to secure early production slots. Although both airframers are claiming their aircraft is superior, at the moment these are simply differences on paper, says Flightglobal Ascend head of market analysis Chris Seymour. "I expect they'll be very close [in performance terms]," he says. "But it's very early days, there's no engine-airframe combination flying yet."

The key differentiator between the Neo and the Max, argues Aboulafia, is the engine choice available on the former, between the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G and the Leap-1A. Orders for both powerplants remain broadly neck and neck, with CFM International marginally in front with orders for engines to equip 578 Neos, against Pratt & whitney's 488. Tellingly, perhaps, some 359 aircraft remain without a powerplant choice, reflecting operators hedging their bets on the divergent approaches taken by the engine manufacturers. As Aboulafia notes: "One of them must be wrong."

Seymour adds: "Both are claiming a good reduction in fuel burn, but until we see them flying and performing and we get the [performance] figures from them it's hard to say which is better."

For a third airframer though, the stakes at Farnborough are higher. Bombardier's order book for its PW1500G-powered CSeries remains stubbornly mired at 143. Aboulafia says: "How many airshows has it been now where we have said 'it's make or break time'? Well they're neither made nor broken, but they are closer to one direction than the other. It's been a long time and this [order] drought is fairly persistent."

Bombardier needs to get aggressive with its marketing and pricing, he argues, if the programme is to attract further commitments.

"Everyone accepts the programme needs more orders and perhaps we'll see that at Farnborough," says Seymour. "But the fact is that the CSeries needs to have a good couple of years."

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