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Long-running A350 flirtation ends with American 787 order

American Airlines' decision to commit to the Boeing 787 ends one of the longest-running customer engagements with the Airbus A350.

US Airways originally ordered 20 A350s towards the end of 2005, after the carrier emerged from bankruptcy protection and embarked on a merger with America West Airlines.

While the newly-merged airline had reasoned that its A330 and A320-family operations made Airbus a logical choice for its long-haul fleet update, the A350 decision was also linked to a $250 million loan from Airbus to support the restructuring company.

US Airways, as a result, became a launch customer for – and the first US carrier to select – the original iteration of the A350, opting for General Electric GEnx engines for the twinjets. The aircraft would have been delivered from 2011.

But within six months of the US Airways order, the future of the A350 was being engulfed by uncertainty as Airbus considered overhauling the aircraft's design to compete more effectively with the 787.

As the revamped aircraft, the A350 XWB, emerged, Airbus retained US Airways as a customer, converting and expanding its order to 22 aircraft – a mix of 18 A350-800s and four of the larger A350-900, all powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWBs, the sole engine for the type.

US Airways, at the time, stressed that it had looked at the 787 but still felt the A350 was the better option for the carrier. The airline's order was part of a broader deal, firmed in October 2007, which also included 70 A320-family jets.

Delivery of the A350 XWBs was due to begin in 2014 but the first in a series of deferrals emerged in the year following the order, as the jets were pushed back by one year, before being put back another two, to 2017, in 2009.

While the aircraft remained on the order book, the decision by American Airlines – a strong Boeing widebody customer – to pursue a merger with US Airways during 2012-13 effectively put the A350 deal on notice.

American Airlines converted all the A350s to the -900 variant towards the end of 2013, as Airbus focused on the -900 and -1000 and prepared to drop the -800 in favour of re-engining the A330.

But American continued to push back the A350s, citing capacity-management and a desire to reduce capital expenditure, eventually opting last year to delay deliveries to 2020 and beyond.

Airbus's relatively weak position within American's long-haul fleet, which already included the 787, weighed against the airframer in the fleet-renewal decision.

American says that, as "part of the strategy to simplify its fleet" it has agreed "to terminate" the original US Airways order for 22 A350s.

Cancellation will reduce the overall number of A350-900s ordered to 664, of which 158 had been delivered by the end of March. Airbus also has orders for 168 A350-1000s.

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