Gulf rules thin UK air show

FARNBOROUGH Mon Jul 14, 2008 7:52pm BST

1 of 2. Visitors pass near an Airbus A-380 passenger plane on the first day of the Farnborough International Airshow in south England July 14, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

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FARNBOROUGH (Reuters) - Gulf airlines disgorged $25 billion (12.5 billion pounds) on new planes as other buyers virtually disappeared on day one of a UK air show dominated by a shift in economic power towards the region harbouring most oil wealth.

Soaring oil prices have turned an industry boom on its head and prompted several airlines in western consuming countries to defer or cancel existing orders for planes, casting a pall over the opening of the world's largest air show at Farnborough.

But Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways served up a 100-plane order worth $20 billion, split between Airbus EAD.PA and Boeing (BA.N) on Monday, to fuel expansion as the emirate competes with neighbouring Dubai to become a new focal point for aviation.

And with most other airlines nursing weak balance sheets or struggling to survive oil prices which have doubled in a year, there were signs that Etihad had managed to squeeze strong discounts out of the jetliner manufacturers.

Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said the order competition for the deal had been "hard fought" and "tough."

And sales chief John Leahy conceded that while the catalogue value of the Airbus part of the order was around $11 billion, "regretfully that is not exactly the amount that was paid."

Jetliners are traditionally sold at a discount to published list prices, but analysts say price pressures are on Airbus and Boeing now that a three-year boom in sales appears to be over.

Etihad ordered 25 Airbus widebody A350 aircraft, 10 A380 superjumbos and 20 single-aisle A320 planes in a transaction worth $11 billion at list prices.

Etihad also ordered 35 Boeing 787 Dreamliners and 10 Boeing 777s, in a deal Boeing said was worth $9.4 billion.

"The size of our order .. mirrors the rising prominence of the Middle East and its increasing emergence as a new focal point of global aviation," Etihad chief James Hogan said.

Etihad is following in the path of other fast-expanding Gulf airlines like carrier Emirates of Dubai, the largest customer for the 525-seat double-decker A380, which is being delivered to airlines two years behind schedule because of production delays.

ECONOMIC FEARS

Boeing struck first in its biennial battle with Airbus by securing an order for 50 single-aisle 737 airliners from Gulf based low-cost start-up carrier FlyDubai in a deal worth $4 billion including an additional four aircraft to be leased.

Airbus won a firm order for eight A330-300 widebody aircraft from state-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines.

But the most at the aviation jamboree, held on alternate years in Farnborough and Paris, was sombre as executives assessed how to tackle oil at records highs above $140 a barrel.

Compared with previous years, the show got off to a painfully slow start mirrored by the slowing pace of industrial economies squeezed by credit fears and the spectre of inflation.

Noticeably absent on day one was the French defence industry with many executives staying at home for a Bastille Day parade.

Even giant International Lease Financing Corp moved to quash its own predictions of a big order, saying no plans were set.

Airbus and Boeing had their dominance of the market for planes with over 100 seats challenged on Sunday when Bombardier launched a 110-130 seat jet, the CSeries.

Boeing's commercial airplanes chief Scott Carson said he still expected to book more orders than deliveries this year, a sign that production is still ramping up and not contracting.

"What we have seen to date are a handful of customers that have asked to defer for a year or two some of the aircraft they have on order. We have more than enough customers to pull forward into those slots. We have had no cancellations."

With little business being announced, industry executives lined up to watch British Formula One race car driver Lewis Hamilton compete in a race down the runway with a Learjet executive plane built by Canada's Bombardier. The plane lost.

Farnborough also came to a halt for the Lockheed Martin F22 Raptor, making a jaw-dropping international air show debut.

Fighter jets were also the focus of an announcement from Raytheon, which said on Monday it would challenge rival Northrop Grumman Corp by offering a smaller version of its Active Electronically Scanned Array aimed at fighters such as the F-16, including a vast market for upgrades.

(Additional reporting by Jim Wolf, Chloe Fussell, Sarah Marsh, James Regan, John Bowker, Dan Lalor, Rhys Jones; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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