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Airbus Sees New A350 Buyer in Weeks

Airbus is confident of securing a new customer for its A350 mid-sized airliner in coming weeks, possibly before the June 18-22 Paris air show.

"We will see another order for the A350, maybe before Le Bourget (the site of the biennial show)," Airbus President Louis Gallois told reporters late on Monday.

In a sign that the buyer is likely to be a stock market-listed company, Gallois said that although it was preferable to announce high-profile orders at the air show, the customer may be obliged to announce the deal beforehand.

The weeks running up to the world's biggest annual air shows, which rotate each year between Le Bourget outside Paris and Farnborough in Britain, are traditionally a quiet period as some companies store up announcements for maximum effect.

But Air France stole some of the thunder from manufacturers by announcing a $7 billion aircraft order split between Airbus and Boeing two weeks ago, immediately after its board had made the decision.

As a listed company, Air France KLM must comply with rules on the quick disclosure of significant deals and Gallois' remarks imply the next A350 customer will be listed too.

Air France is expected to confirm its own orders at Le Bourget this year. They include an order for two more A380 superjumbos, 30 A320-family single-aisle aircraft from Airbus and 18 wide-body 777 long-haul aircraft from Boeing.

In another announcement rushed out ahead of the Paris air show, Qatar Airways signed a preliminary deal with Airbus last week to supply 80 A350 aircraft worth $16 billion.

The announcement was timed to coincide with a state visit to France by the Emir of Qatar.

It could be firmed up and entered into the Airbus order books -- a significant event for financial analysts -- at Le Bourget, if the airline completes the process of making pre-delivery payments (PDPs) in time for the show.

Gallois did not rule out this happening in time to boost this year's haul of air show orders.

Gallois said it was "realistic" to expect that Airbus would reach 200 firm orders for the recently redesigned and relaunched A350 by the end of this year. It currently has 13 firm orders.

Gallois also told reporters he expected the planemaker to announce sales at the air show for each category of aircraft that it produces. He did not say whether this included any A380 aircraft beyond Air France order.

However, he did not expect Airbus to find a brand new buyer for the troubled A380 superjumbo, whose deliveries have been delayed for two years by wiring installation problems, before the first jet is delivered to Singapore Airlines in late 2007.

That will give the world's largest airliner a chance to prove itself in what Airbus hopes will earn it a vote of confidence from one of the industry's benchmark operators.

Deals for Existing Customers

Airbus has been focusing on offering deals for extra A380s to customers who have already bought the plane as part of deals being negotiated to compensate for the delays.

With the A350, Airbus is battling to catch up with Boeing in the market for a new generation of lightweight mid-sized airliners, following massive success of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. Among some of the widely watched industry battles, Airbus is seen in talks to sell the A350 to unlisted Emirates.

However Boeing's 787, which is due to enter service 5 years before the A350 in 2008, has left little room for its Airbus rival so far, with 524 of its two main 787 models sold.

Boeing has also sold 43 examples of a smaller regional version of the 787 for use in Japan, but some Airbus officials are sceptical this variant of the plane will actually enter service, saying it is uneconomical.

Airbus says it will be able to turn the five-year delivery gap to its advantage by offering technology the 787 lacks.

But a potentially even tougher battlefield could open up if Boeing opts soon to update its larger and older 777 series, operating in a market segment which is also coveted by the A350.

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