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Airbus clinches landmark jet order with Japan Airlines

Japan Airlines aircrafts are parked on the tarmac at Haneda Airport in Tokyo February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Japan Airlines aircrafts are parked on the tarmac at Haneda Airport in Tokyo February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Tim Hepher and Tim Kelly

BARCELONA/TOKYO (Reuters) - Airbus clinched its first jet order from Japan Airlines <9201.T> on Monday, cracking a big national market long dominated by the European firm's main rival, Boeing .

The U.S. planemaker acknowledged it had paid a penalty for the mechanically troubled debut of its 787 Dreamliner.

The landmark deal for 31 wide-body A350 jets with a combined $9.5 billion list price follows an intense battle between the two manufacturers as JAL and domestic rival ANA Holdings Inc <9202.T> seek dozens of new long-haul jets over the next decade.

The agreement, which is also likely to unsettle a Japanese aerospace industry that builds large portions of Boeing's jets, includes options for another 25 of the A350s.

"This is a huge win for Airbus and a big loss for Boeing," said aerospace analyst Scott Hamilton, managing director of Seattle-based Leeham Co.

"Airbus has been trying to break the wide-body monopoly of Boeing for decades and likewise Boeing has been wanting to keep Airbus out of JAL and ANA."

Shares in Airbus parent EADS rose 1.75 percent in Paris on the good news for the A350, a twin-engine plane designed to carry between 270 and 350 passengers.

First deliveries of the A350 are expected in about a year. JAL expects to start using the plane from about 2019.

Boeing has for decades seen off attempts by the European company to secure an order with JAL. The American firm has benefited from links with its own Japanese parts suppliers and deep political ties between Tokyo and Washington to maintain a share of the national market above 80 percent.

Delays to the 787 Dreamliner and its subsequent grounding after batteries overheated have, however, tarnished Boeing's image and cast doubt on its ability to deliver aircraft on time, industry experts said. Both JAL and ANA are major Dreamliner buyers.

News of the deal, confirming a Reuters report, dominated a major aviation gathering in Spain where Boeing sought to draw a line under recent problems besetting its prestige airliner.

"It's a heartbreak," Kostya Zolotusky, managing director of Boeing Capital Corp, told aircraft financiers in Barcelona.

Problems with the Dreamliner made it hard for JAL to stick with Boeing: "We recognize that we made it very challenging for them in introducing 787 and will work to correct that," he said.

Besides the 787's woes, bureaucratic and political influence over fleet purchases by JAL, which the Japanese government bailed out in 2010, has waned since it went public again a year ago and the Democratic Party that rescued it lost power.

In a sign of how JAL's once cozy government ties have become strained, the carrier on Friday complained that it was unfairly treated over landing rights at Tokyo's Haneda airport after ANA received twice as many new landing slots.

FLYING THE FLAG

Airbus also showed its readiness to move in on Boeing's turf in the Japanese aerospace manufacturing industry, including cooperation in research and development.

"With this order, it gives us more momentum to look for potential joint R&D efforts for the future generation of aircraft," Fabrice Bregier, chief executive of Airbus, told a news conference in Tokyo with JAL President Yoshiharu Ueki.

Ambassadors from Britain, Germany and France and the European Union representative in Japan attended the briefing, each with national flags displayed before of them.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said significant European diplomatic efforts had gone into winning the deal.

Ueki did not say what JAL would actually pay for the A350s, which vie with Boeing's yet-to-be-launched 777X, but industry analysts said it would be typical to secure generous discounts in such a groundbreaking deal.

"This is seriously bad for Boeing. They need to do a little soul searching," said Richard Aboulafia, airline analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. The 787 problems, he said, "inevitably led to doubts about execution, resources and time".

Ueki denied problems with the 787 were a factor in the decision, however - but also repeated JAL's apologies to customers for disruptions to service caused by the Boeing's grounding in January.

He attributed Airbus's successful wooing of his company in part to timing: delivery for the A350, due to begin flying passengers next year, will ensure it is available when JAL needs it at the end of the decade, while the debut of the 777X is further out and less certain.

JAL's new Airbus aircraft, powered by Roll-Royce engines, will begin entering service in 2019, the companies said. Boeing says the 777X will enter service in 2020.

As part of Airbus's sales pitch, the aircraft maker invited Ueki to its base in the French city of Toulouse and gave the former pilot - who spent his flying career on Boeings - a chance to try out one of its A380 simulators.

Ueki said he found the Airbus side-mounted joystick control, which differs from the traditional central column found in Boeing cockpits, easy to use.

AGING FLEET

The battle between the two aircraft makers will now shift to ANA, which is looking for around 25 new jets to replace its aging fleet of long-haul Boeing 777s from 2020.

ANA is still gathering information on the 777X and the A350, Ryosei Nomura, a spokesman for the airline, said.

"This is Airbus's largest order for the A350 so far this year and is the largest ever order we have received from a Japanese airline," Airbus CEO Bregier told reporters.

Boeing, whose ties to Japan date back to the country's postwar reconstruction under U.S. occupation, said it was disappointed but respected JAL's decision.

"We have built a strong relationship with Japan Airlines over the last 50 years and we look to continue our partnership going forward," a company spokesman said via email.

If they chose Boeing's 777X, both JAL and ANA would have to commit to being a launch customer again for a new Boeing jet.

Delays to the 787, a third of which is built in Japan, and its subsequent grounding may have made JAL wary of buying an aircraft that Boeing has yet to officially commit to building. That gave Airbus a rare opening in Boeing's best market.

ANA's boss, Shinichiro Ito, told Reuters last month that his airline would consider possible delivery delay risks when choosing replacements for its older long-haul 777 jets.

With the world's biggest fleet of Dreamliners and being the first airline to fly the innovative carbon composite plane, ANA has been most affected by delays. The aircraft's grounding this year has resulted in millions of dollars of losses.

Japanese suppliers including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd <7011.T> and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd <7012.T> are expected to join the 777X construction programme, although Boeing has yet to say how much of the work it will pass their way.

(Additional reporting by Natalie Huet and Brian Love in Paris, Alwyn Scott in New York and Siva Govindasamy in Singapore; Editing by Edmund Klamann, Dean Yates and Alastair Macdonald)

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