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Airbus A380 a Show Starter in Paris

The new 555-passenger jet kicks off the expo, and the firm announces A350 orders. Boeing counters, saying it plans to boost 787 production.

June 14, 2005|Peter Pae | By Peter Pae Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- The world's largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380, made its first public appearance Monday, doing figure eights in the sky to kick off the Paris Air Show. The flying demonstration of this doubled-decked, 555-passenger jet delivered the first punch in a mega-public relations battle between aerospace titans Airbus and archrival Boeing Co.

Many aerospace firms save their major announcements until the world's largest air show opens, but it has become particularly intense this year because an uptick in international air travel is finally energizing an industry hurt by a travel slowdown after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

On Monday, Qatar Airways said it planned to buy as many as 60 new Airbus A350 mid-size jets. Airbus Chief Executive Noel Forgeard said this meant the company had enough orders to proceed with the A350, its answer to Boeing's new fuel-efficient 787 passenger jet.

Meanwhile, Boeing said demand for its 787 had been so good -- with 266 orders compared with 10 for the A350 before the Qatar announcement -- that it planned to boost the plane's production rate.

"The marketplace could eat up as many [787s] as we could produce," said Mike Bair, program manager for the 787.

Toulouse, France-based Airbus surpassed Boeing in 2003 as the largest commercial plane maker, but Boeing has signed more plane contracts this year, chiefly because of the 787. The 787 -- slated to fly in 2008 -- will largely be built around thin layers of carbon fibers to dramatically cut weight and save as much as 20% a year in fuel costs.

Chicago-based Boeing also announced in Paris that it expected to develop a larger version of its venerable 747 jumbo jet to rival the A380.

These announcements came as a transatlantic trade dispute before the World Trade Organization has fueled the rivalry between the two plane makers, though a resolution isn't expected for years. On Monday in a procedural maneuver, the U.S. and Europe blocked each other's request to have a WTO panel review their complaints of improper government subsidies to the rival airplane makers.

The WTO is expected to take up the matter again June 23.

It is clear, though, that Paris Air Show organizers are pleased to see a larger contingent of Americans here after a de facto boycott by the Pentagon prompted many U.S. defense companies to eliminate, or cut back, their presence at the last show in 2003. At the time, the Pentagon said it was not participating because of the major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many believed the snub was in response to France's refusal to assist the U.S. in the invasion of Iraq.

Now, with a rebound in the commercial aircraft market, show organizers are expecting to draw 300,000 visitors, exhibitors and industry officials by the time it closes Sunday, compared with 230,000 in 2003.

About 200 planes and helicopters are on display here, alongside aeronautical and military hardware from 41 countries. In addition to dozens of flying demonstrations of the world's most advanced and upcoming aircraft, the Paris show is also the world's largest gathering of aerospace executives, military generals and government officials.

This year the number of exhibitors, who spend heavily for booths to showcase their products, have topped 1,900, from barely 1,700 in 2003. Major aerospace companies are also spending as much as $250,000 apiece for private bungalows, with meeting rooms and dining tables, to woo potential customers.

Two rows of chalets line the runway at Le Bourget airport, the site of the show, with aircraft parked on the tarmac. Large aerospace companies, such as Boeing and Airbus, have viewing areas on the second floor, similar to private booths at a racetrack, where guests can watch Russian fighter jets do loops in the sky while dining on foie gras.

Richard H. Cater, senior counsel for Alabama's Department of Finance, walked around hoping to drum up some aerospace business for his state.

"It's a unique opportunity to strike up new relationships, revive old ones and tell the story of Alabama," he said while posing for pictures under the tail of the A380, parked after its flight demonstration.

The air show's start also included a display by Dassault Aviation's Rafale combat jet, which spun and did air flips. The French government has ordered 120 Rafales since 1997, but the jet, which competes with Boeing's F-16 combat plane, has yet to win an export order.

But for all the schmoozing, the rival announcements by Boeing and Airbus took center stage.

Randy Baseler, Boeing's vice president of commercial marketing, said that the company expected to launch passenger and freighter versions of a stretched 747 aircraft this year. The plane would have about 450 seats, up from 400, and use the fuel-efficient engines being developed for the 787.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways' likely order for the A350 was seen as a positive step for Airbus. Orders for the A350 had sharply lagged behind Boeing's 787, and analysts questioned whether Airbus would garner enough orders to launch the aircraft.

"It certainly is a well-needed morale boost for the A350 program," said Jon Kutler, head of U.S. aerospace consulting group Jefferies Quarterdeck.

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Times wire services were used in compiling this report.

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