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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Airlines Back Airbus With A3XX Orders

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Four more airlines have signed letters of intent for the Airbus Industrie A3XX, the European planemaker said Tuesday, adding the proposed jumbo airliner might be launched with orders for 40 or 50 planes.

"In less than four months, we have obtained letters of intent from Emirates, Singapore and from four customers that will remain undisclosed for a while," said Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard, describing a preliminary marketing campaign launched earlier this year.

"On top of that, at least two more are in the pipe," he told reporters in Toulouse.

Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Dubai carrier Emirates had already said they were interested in ordering 15 of the planes, which would be larger rivals to the Boeing's 747, currently the largest and perhaps most profitable product in the airliner market.

"We are not in a position to publish the names of these potential customers yet, but details will be announced very soon," Forgeard said.

But no expression of interest from Singapore Airlines, Emirates or any anonymous carrier can yet constitute an order for the controversial aircraft, because the Airbus board has not authorized the consortium to contract to supply the plane.

The board was due to consider this week whether to authorize A3XX contracts, but its meeting was deferred.

French aerospace group Lagardere, which holds an interest in Airbus through a stake in Aerospatiale Matra, said Tuesday that it had asked for the deferral.

Chairman Jean-Luc Lagardere told reporters he had asked DaimlerChrysler AG, another Airbus shareholder, to put off the meeting. He did not say why, despite suggestions that there was not enough airline interest.

"We do not want to be pushed and pressured by the media," he said. "We will choose the timing ourselves."

Airbus will not be bound to build the A3XX even if it does sign some initial contracts, since such deals would be contingent on getting enough orders to commence construction.

Airbus has never said how many launch orders it would need before committing itself, but Forgeard said on Tuesday a launch base of 40 to 50 planes might be expected.

Referring to the long-standing interest of freight carrier Atlas Air, he said he would be surprised if no cargo operator were among the launch customers.

Airbus is a consortium of a DaimlerChrysler's Dasa unit, France's Aerospatiale Matra and Casa of Spain - which are all merging - plus Britain's BAE Systems PLC.

Lagardere said all the partners were committed to the A3XX, including BAE, which has sometimes been suspected of cold feet.

The A3XX would be the most ambitious airliner project the global aerospace industry has seen since the 1960s, when Boeing launched the 747 and Aerospatiale and BAE undertook the financially disastrous Concorde program.

Airbus estimates the development cost at $12 billion. The program is supposed to generate a return on that because, according to estimates issued Tuesday, the A3XX would be 17 percent more cost-efficient than the old 747.

Executives at the annual Airbus technical briefing on Tuesday sarcastically congratulated Boeing for passing the 30th anniversary of the 747's entry into service.

The A3XX would seat 555 people, compared with the 747's 420.

Executives told reporters the heaviest version of the A3XX was now planned to weigh 560 metric tons on takeoff - compared with the 747's 397 - and have a range of 14,900 kilometers.

Boeing has said that if there was a market for such a plane, which it doubted, it could enlarge the 747 and modify its wing design to cut drag and therefore fuel and engine costs.

Such a development would cost far less than a new plane.

Airbus has said it would commit the A3XX to production by the end of this year.