OSLO (Reuters) - Nordic budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle (NWC.OL) placed one of Europe's biggest-ever aircraft orders on Wednesday in a rare gamble on Europe's economic recovery just when the continent's airlines are struggling to reverse their financial rot.
Norwegian ordered 222 narrow-body aircraft worth $21.5 billion at list prices , taking advantage of the Nordics' remarkable economic health amid the continent's credit crisis.
The orders, split between Boeing Co. (BA.N) and EADS EAD.PA unit Airbus, gives both firms major victories as the
U.S. company gains the second biggest order for its newest aircraft while the European planemaker gets a foothold in Norwegian's Boeing-only fleet.
"The idea is to act a little countercyclically in these markets ... when night is darkest," Norwegian Chief Executive Bjoern Kjos told a news conference.
"The world (economy) is in a state of decline and that is when you should act," he said, adding the airline got an advantageous price as Europe's airline industry is in the doldrums.
Kjos shrugged off doubts about financing, saying the deal is entirely backed by borrowings from the Export-Import Bank of the United States and European Export Credit Agencies . A share issue, particularly in the current market climate, was not on the cards , he said.
BGC strategist Howard Wheeldon said Norway's status as Europe's shining star, thanks to its lucrative oil sector, tight budget and no net debt, was a clincher.
" Arguably with its massive natural resources of minerals, oil and ga s, Norway
is in a pretty unique positive situation ... Thus I do not believe financing will be an issue here ," he said.
Norway, the world's eight h biggest oil exporter and second biggest natural gas exporter, has saved $570 billion -- or about $115,000 per man, woman and child -- in a wealth fund, giving it a remarkable economic footing.
Norwegian's deal come just weeks after Franco-Dutch Air France-KLM, Europe's largest airline by revenue, announced it would shrink its fleet by shedding more than a billion euros from a planned expansion project.
The big order also pushes closer to the abyss legacy carrier SAS (SAS.ST), which has been struggling with debt, cut-price rivals and an aged fleet of planes.
The order -- for 100 of Boeing's new 737 MAX8, 100 of the Airbus A320neo and 22 Boeing 787-800s -- is only the second major order for the new Boeings after Southwest Airlines placed a firm order for 150 in December.
In addition, Kjos said Norwegian was in talks about expanding its order for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from the current six.
"Ideally I would think a fleet really should be more than 10 planes, and maybe even up to 20-30 planes depending on where you put them," he said. "We want more Dreamliners in the future, and Boeing wants to sell us more planes, so I'd say it will work out ... what we're looking at now is out through 2015, 2016, and further on."
Norwegian Air shares surged as much as 12 percent to a three-month high and by 1248 GMT traded up 7 percent, while SAS was down 1.7 percent.
The orders, coming hours ahead of Boeing's annual earnings statement, coincide with plans by both leading aircraft makers to increase production of the narrowbody 737 and A320 jets which are already at record levels.
The companies are banking on continued strong demand from airlines anxious to lock in fuel savings and meet traffic growth in Asian and the Middle East, but questions have been raised over the availability of financing amid the European debt crisis and the level of discounts offered to maintain sales momentum.
"We ... think that the strength of the narrowbody order books further justifies the production increases announced by Boeing and Airbus, but that the real focus for investors will be margin performance as production ramps up," RBC Capital Markets analyst Rob Stallard said.
Norwegian also signed options for another 100 of the new Boeings and 50 A320neos as it seeks to replace it entire fleet of 62 aircraft with deliveries starting in 2016.
But some analysts are sceptical regarding the financing, given that the airline's entire market capitalisation is around $430 million.
"The financing for the deal is seen as a major uncertainty currently ... we would not expect for the whole deal to be financed debt only," brokerage Terra Markets said in a note.
"The order is indicated to have a list price of NOK 127bn, which even assuming a significant discount still seems demanding for Norwegian with (its) current market capitalisation of 2.3 billion crowns," it said.
Norwegian's Kjos said the deal was not dependent on a share issue but the firm was open to financing options, including an equity raise if markets improved .
"If we do issue shares some day, then the market will look different than it does today ... the way the market is today, you shouldn't make deals that depend on going out into the market to get money," he said.
Additional reporting by Joachim Dagenborg, Victoria Klesty and Tim Hepher; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter and David Holmes