Herman de Wulf/Brussels

Sabena has selected the A320 family over the Boeing Next Generation 737 to replace its entire 737 fleet, and will sign a contract for up to 39 aircraft for delivery from January 1999.

The airline's selection of the Airbus single-aisle aircraft is part of a move to eliminate all of its Boeing types by the decade's end.

The selection, which was strongly influenced by Swissair, whose parent SAir Group has a 49.5% interest in Sabena, will see the airline place firm orders for 34 aircraft - 26 A319s, five A320s and three A321s - to replace its 13 ageing 737-200s and 15 737-300/400/500s. Options have been taken on a further five A320s or A321s.

Despite Swissair's commitment to the CFM International CFM56 engine on its own A320 fleet, Sabena says that the engine selection is still open, and that a decision will be taken by March 1998.

Sabena president Paul Reutlinger says that the decision to switch to the Airbus models for the short-haul fleet "is logical, because it will cut operating cost through fleet harmonisation in the Sabena-Swissair-Austrian Airlines group".

Unions at the airline's maintenance subsidiary, Sabena Technics, a 737 specialist, had until earlier this month been pushing for Sabena to select the Next Generation 737 because they feared that work would go to Swissair at Zurich or Shannon Aerospace if Airbus was chosen.

The unions withdrew their opposition following a pledge from Airbus and Swissair that Airbus maintenance work would be placed with Sabena Technics, and that training of maintenance personnel would be undertaken.

Financing details of the order are still being worked out, but it is understood that the Belgian carrier will finance some of the aircraft, while the bulk of the order will be leased from a consortium now being formed by Sabena (25%), Swissair (25%) and Airbus Industrie (50%).

Sabena has requested that the deal be set in ECUs rather than in US dollars, to provide monetary stability throughout the programme. As part of the deal, Airbus will provide an A320 and A330/ A340 flight simulator free. It will be installed in the new Sabena training centre at Brussels Airport.

In keeping with the standardisation on Airbus, Sabena will phase out its two Boeing 747-300s in 1999. The airline has boosted its A330-200 orders by two, and has extended its five-year lease on three ex-Air Inter A330-300s to ten years.

The airline's long-haul fleet will ultimately consist of six A330-200s and four A340-200/300s, while CityBird - in which Sabena has an 11% share - will operate its two Boeing MD-11s for Sabena on transatlantic services.

Sabena's charter division, Sobelair, will retain its all-Boeing fleet of 737s and 767-300ERs.

Source: Flight International