Trans World Airlines' decision to set up deals with Airbus Industrie and Boeing for competing 100-seaters - totalling 250 aircraft, including options - has raised questions over the US airline's future strategy.

The deal remains to be finalised, but TWA has signed letters of intent (LoIs) for 50 717-200s, plus options on a further 50, for delivery from 2000. An LoI was also signed for 50 rival Airbus A318s, for delivery from 2003.

The Airbus deal includes commitments for 25 firm A320 family aircraft from 2005 onward, plus options on 75 more. TWA will take 12 A318s from International Lease Finance (ILFC) and the rest of the 717 and Airbus fleets will be "manufacturer financed", it says.

The carrier joins ILFC as a launch customer of the P&W PW6000-powered A318, and a formal launch of the Airbus 100-seater is expected early in 1999.

TWA says it is introducing both types because of their different operating characteristics. The 717, optimised for shorter routes up to 2,400km (1,300nm), will replace elderly McDonnell Douglas DC-9s on high frequency routes to and from the East Coast, and from the company's St Louis and Kansas hubs. The longer-range A318 will be used for long, thin operations to destinations on the West Coast.

The airline admits its decision was influenced by the early availability of the 717, given the relatively long lead time on the A318. Deliveries of the 717 will start in 2000 with 15 aircraft, followed by 15 in 2001, 12 in 2002 and eight aircraft in 2003.

Deliveries of the A318 will begin in 2003 with 11 aircraft, with handovers continuing at the same rate until 2007, when the last six on firm order are due for delivery. Deliveries of the A320 family aircraft - possibly including A319s and A321s - will begin with six aircraft in 2005, seven in 2006 and 12 in 2007.

The acquisition is part of the ailing airline's long-term fleet adjustment plan, which will see up to 42% of its 1996 fleet replaced by the end of 1999. The airline is scheduled to take 37 previously ordered aircraft in 1999, including 24 Boeing MD-83s, 12 757s and one 767-300.

The last of TWA's Boeing 727-200s could be disposed of as early as the end of next year. The DC-9 fleet will also be whittled down to a batch of 30 hushkitted aircraft by the end of 1999, in time for the first 717s to begin replacing them. The A318s "-will not replace anything", adds the airline.

TWA says the Airbus deal is unrelated to its longstanding, but as yet unfilled, order for 20 Rolls-Royce Trent-powered A330s, placed in 1989. "The future of the A330 order is still to be decided, but we expect to have discussions with Airbus in the near term," the carrier adds.

According to industry sources, TWA was "-pretty sure it was going to have to buy something from the Airbus series because of the amount of deposit money on hold at the consortium. They had to do something, and that's why there is a split order".

Source: Flight International