Airbus 'neo' plane launch kicks-off Farnborough show

Farnborough (United Kingdom) (AFP) - European planemaker Airbus on Monday launched the eagerly-awaited upgrade of its long-haul A330 passenger jet -- the A330neo -- to meet rising demand for cheaper, more fuel-efficient travel.

The decision to upgrade the A330 with new Rolls-Royce engines was announced on the first day of the Farnborough airshow, a key biennial event in the aviation calendar held near London which sees Airbus battle with rival US giant Boeing for orders.

On Monday, US-based Air Lease Corporation announced a firm order for 60 single-aisle Airbus A321neo planes worth $7.23 billion at list prices.

ALC has also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to be the launch customer of the Airbus A330-900neo by buying 25 of the wide-body aircraft. Together the deals are worth a potential $14.1 billion (10.3 billion euros).

Boeing announced meanwhile that British low-cost carrier Monarch Airlines was finalising terms for 30 of its 737 MAX 8s worth $3.1 billion, marking the start of a fleet transition to the US group's single-aisle planes from Airbus jets.

Okay Airways, the first privately-owned Chinese carrier, has agreed to buy 10 single-aisle Boeing 737 planes worth $980 million at current list prices.

"The 737 is the backbone of our fleet and has fueled our growth with its proven reliability and efficiency," Okay president Liu Weining said in a statement.

Brazilian group Embraer, the world's third largest commercial planemaker, said it had won an order worth $2.4 billion for 50 regional jets from US airlines-owner Trans States Holdings.

- Yes to Neo -

Airbus said that its A330neo, a rival of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, will be available in two versions, the A330-800neo and the A330-900neo.

The neo would cut fuel consumption by 14 percent per seat compared with existing A330s, and deliveries will start in the fourth quarter of 2017, Airbus added.

"The A330 is a very important margin contributor for our group. It’s also one of the most reliable and efficient commercial aircraft ever," said Airbus Group chief executive Tom Enders.

"With our decision to re-engine... we will keep the A330 flying high for many more years to come."

Airbus has sold about 1,300 A330s, of which the vast majority are still in service since the model's launch in 1993. The group has forecast sales of the A330neo at potentially more than 1,000 units.

Company president Fabrice Bregier said Airbus would confer with customers about converting orders for its unsuccessful A350-800 to A330neo aircraft.

The A350-900, due to enter service at the end of the year, is making flypasts at the week-long Farnborough event and has managed to win many orders compared with the A350-800.

Using composite materials, the A350 is another rival for the Dreamliner. Qatar Airways, launch-customer of the A350, is unveiling its plane's interior at the show.

The head of Boeing's commercial planes division brushed aside the latest competition from Airbus.

"We are very comfortable with our product line-up in terms of efficiency, in terms of what value we bring to the market place," Ray Conner told journalists on Monday.

Just before the Farnborough show opened, Boeing said it planned a new version of its popular 737 MAX single-aisle jet that would carry more passengers.

- F-35 jet absent -

But the week-long Farnborough airshow's debut was clouded by a notable no-show, that of the stricken US-built F-35 stealth fighter jet.

The F-35, grounded by an engine fire in the United States last week, did not appear as planned, though it could still take part at the end of the week, organisers said.

"At any moment if we get the okay, we are ready to go," Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, who oversees the F-35 programme, told a media briefing here on Monday.