Virgin Atlantic Airways is evaluating an offer from Boeing that could see it become launch customer for the new 777-300ER rather than take up options to expand its Airbus A340-600 fleet.

The UK long-haul carrier is launch customer for the Rolls-Royce Trent-powered A340-600 with 10 on firm order, but according to industry sources has pitched the eight A340-600 options it holds against an offer from Boeing for the similarly sized -300ER. The options were taken as part of Virgin's original 1997 order, and are slated to cover expansion as well as to replace some of the airline's nine Boeing 747-200 Classics and possibly its older A340-300s.

Virgin says it pursues a policy of operating a mix of Airbus and Boeing types, and is "always reviewing its fleet options". It confirms it has "received some interesting and attractive offers from both manufacturers in recent months", and says it "wouldn't rule anything out". Virgin declines to be specific on the timing of any evaluation or selection, but sources close to the negotiations say they are at a "very sensitive" stage.

Although Boeing launched the General Electric GE90-115B-powered 777-300ER and the smaller -200LR last year with the backing of a number of customers including Air France and Japan Airlines, it is yet to allocate the first two -300ERs off the production line. Boeing is therefore understood to be offering Virgin the opportunity of becoming the lead airline on the -300ER programme when deliveries begin in September 2003. The carrier says that being launch customer "is always a very attractive element" to any deal it concludes.

Specifics of the Airbus and Boeing offers are not clear, nor is any role Virgin's 49% owner Singapore Airlines will have in the talks. It is likely the trade-in of the 747 Classics would be one element, as would be the involvement of lessors GE Capital Aviation Services and International Lease Finance, which both have aircraft leased to Virgin.

Some observers see Virgin's 777 evaluation as a clever way of leveraging more concessions out of Airbus. However it could result in a major coup for Boeing which has long held ambitions to sell the twinjet to the airline, and would be a major blow to Airbus and R-R.

Source: Flight International