Ryanair upstages Paris airshow with China tie-up

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Low-cost pioneer Ryanair stole the limelight at the world's biggest air show on Tuesday, trumping billions of dollars of orders for Boeing and Airbus with an unprecedented Chinese tie-up.

On the second day of the Paris International Airshow, the industry buzz was dampened by news of a Russian air crash that cost more than 40 lives and the massive disruption to air travel in Australia due to a volcanic ash cloud.

Despite rivals Boeing and Airbus announcing a series of billion-dollar orders, Ryanair dominated the agenda by signing up to help Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC) develop a version of its medium-range C919 jet.

Ryanair said it would "share its experience and expertise to assist COMAC to develop the new C919 commercial aircraft, with up to 200 seats, which would enable Ryanair to lower costs and continue to lower fares."

COMAC came to Paris for the first time this year to claim its place in the industry and the Ryanair deal certainly helps that, with Boeing saying earlier that its duopoly with Airbus was over.

Ryanair, which currently only operates Boeing planes, made the point clear.

"We are pleased that there is now a real alternative to Boeing and Airbus," chief Michael O'Leary said in a statement.

O'Leary noted that Ryanair will have a fleet of over 300 Boeing aircraft by 2013, "and we remain in continuing discussions with both Boeing and now COMAC for a replacement aircraft order of at least 200 aircraft."

He said the tie-up with COMAC would not affect Ryanair's relationship with Boeing, whose commercial aircraft head Jim Albaugh said at the weekend that China's first competitive sale would "probably be sooner than anyone thinks."

The 190-seat C919 targets the main industry battleground, the market for medium-haul planes dominated by Boeing's 737 and the Airbus A320, which is being upgraded to the more fuel efficient A320neo.

On Monday, sales at the air show came to some $20 billion, led by Airbus and Boeing and the two rivals were quick out of the blocks on Tuesday with more as they vied with each other for the best headlines.

US leasing firm CIT Aerospace signed a memorandum of understanding for 50 A320neo aircraft, bring the total number of planes it has ordered from Airbus to 241, of which 141 have been delivered, the firms said.

Boeing, which lagged Airbus in the orders game on Monday, announced a series of sales for the 737 and its long-haul 777-300.

Low-cost carrier Norwegian, which claims to be the third largest airline in Europe, ordered 15 737-800 planes worth $1.2 billion (836 million euros), while Russia's Aeroflot took signed eight 777-300ER aircraft, listed at $2.2 billion.

Aeroflot ordered eight 777 planes in March in a deal which included an option for eight more as it gears up for the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the Soccer World Cup hosted by Russia in 2018.

Malaysia Airlines meanwhile said it was taking up options for 10 Boeing 737-800 medium-haul aircraft, worth $800 million at list prices.

Another Malaysian firm, AirAsia, was meanwhile expected to place a potentially huge order for 200 Airbus A320neos worth $18 billion, matching Ryanair in the scale of its ambition.

A senior AirAsia official told AFP on Monday that "we are looking at 200 jets," with the deal perhaps sealed in the next few days in Paris.

If the deal goes through, Boeing will be under even more pressure to make a decision on the future of its 737 -- either upgrade, like Airbus with the A320neo, or opt for a new plane entirely, a much more risky and costly course.

Alongside Airbus and Boeing, more than 2,000 smaller aerospace companies are looking for business at the 49th Paris International Airshow where a second day of bad weather dampened spirits.

The US giant estimates that 33,500 planes worth $4.0 trillion (2.8 trillion euros) will be needed over the next 20 years.

© 2011 AFP

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