So British Airways has at last placed an order with Airbus Industrie, some 30 years after the European consortium was conceived with the primary aim of building an aircraft for BA's predecessor, British European Airways (BEA).

The fiercely fought battle between Airbus and Boeing for this much prized order will have both strategic and political long-term implications. Whether this will be of greater benefit to Airbus than it is a blow to Boeing will only become clear over the next 15 years. What is immediately clear is that Boeing can now only hope to supply long- haul aircraft to the airline that has traditionally ordered almost every model in its product line.

Although formed in December 1970 as a Franco-German joint venture, for much of its gestation during the 1960s Airbus was a predominantly Anglo-French effort, with the aim of creating a short haul aircraft to meet the specific requirements of the national airlines. This would enable them to have an aircraft ideally suited for their own needs, rather than having to adopt a US airliner which had been designed primarily for its own home market.

It has always therefore been ironic that BA has chosen to ally with Boeing rather than the Europeans for its fleet. Perhaps the explanation lies in the historic background to the airline.

The UK's two national airlines, British Overseas Airways and BEA, which were merged to create BA in 1972, had fought a tug of war throughout the 1960s with consecutive UK governments, which saw them forced to operate economically inferior British-built aircraft. This policy benefited neither the airlines, nor the UK manufacturers. As Airbus Industrie's chief executive Noel Forgeard pointed out at the BA order announcement ceremony at Airbus' Toulouse headquarters, the UK culture "-prizes nothing more than freedom", and so it was no surprise that when cut loose to make its own choices, BA chased after the sweets it had so long been denied.

BA's consistent dismissal of the Airbus family has almost entered into folklore, and it was therefore not surprising that Forgeard described the deal for 188 A320 family models as the "crowning achievement" of the consortium's commercial year. That constant denial of Airbus saw BA decline the original 250-seat A300 in the early 1970s and more controversially place launch orders for the Boeing 757 rather than support the embryonic A310, in 1978. The timing of this decision could not have been worse, as it came as the then state-owned British Aerospace was negotiating to become a fully paid up member of Airbus.

Airbus marketeers recall numerous visits to BA's headquarters over the last 15 years to try to sell the airline narrowbodies, but each time negotiations failed to cement a deal. A UK-based airline did place launch orders for the fly-by-wire A320 family, but it was BA's independent rival British Caledonian (BCAL).Ironically, these aircraft were delivered to BA in 1988 after the merger with BCAL the same year, and despite numerous moves to dispose of the aircraft, the small fleet remains with the airline.

Probably the turning point in the Airbus campaign at BA came in 1991, when the airline selected the Boeing 777 over the rival A330/A340 family for its long-haul needs after a long and protracted evaluation. Airbus clearly believed that it had done all it could for BA, and became determined to avoid future confrontations at the airline if its only purpose was to be a stalking horse to ensure that the best possible concessions were gained from Boeing. So strong were the feelings within Toulouse, the story goes that senior BA executives had to travel to the Airbus headquarters to convince it to participate in the latest campaign.

The profit margins available from such close fought battles, known within the industry as "sporty games", would never provide Airbus with a glittering cash bonanza, so why was this order so important? Although it has been a long, hard and painful fight for Airbus to land its elusive prey, it has snatched one of Boeing's biggest customers and is now set to be the only supplier of BA's new short-haul airliners.

The deal comes after a string of single aisle successes over the last 18 months on its home patch, with Airbus landing major deals at Iberia, TAP Air Portugal, Finnair, Aer Lingus, British Midland and Sabena. The latter three deals were particular gratifying for Airbus as the airlines, like BA, are major Boeing 737 operators. With BA now prised from Boeing, Airbus has completed a pincer movement through Western Europe which sees only Dutch airline KLM and Scandinavia's SAS alone among the flag carriers as Next Generation 737 customers. European A320 family sales in the last four years (since the launch of the NG 737) stand at 330, around 100 more than the rival NG 737.

What will be of more concern to Boeing is that Airbus has done a relatively good job in its own backyard, North America. Airbus effectively has control of the Canadian short-haul jet market with both Air Canada and Canadian Airlines International major A320 operators. The consortium has also picked off several blue chip US major carriers, including Northwest, United Airlines, and US Airways, as well as America West, with over 500 single aisle sales to the North American airlines. The United deal, like BA's, was particularly sweet for Airbus as the airline was a major Boeing customer, with hundreds of 737s.

Possibly, the most significant factor for Airbus in securing an order from BA is that, despite its huge customer list, it was missing one of the key airlines for the launch of its planned 480/650-seat A3XX programme. BA has long been expected to be among the launch customers for any new airliner bigger than the Boeing 747, and Airbus will now feel it is in a much stronger position to tackle its US rival Boeing in what is set to be the ultimate sporty game.

Source: Flight International