By Tim Hepher
SINGAPORE, Feb 8 (Reuters) - AirAsia is expected to reconfirm its commitment to the A330neo jet after Boeing sought to poach one of Airbus’s top customers, a person familiar with the discussions said on Thursday.
In what would deliver an embarrassing blow to Airbus, AirAsia co-founder Tony Fernandes announced last week he was looking at buying Boeing 787s to expand the fleet of its long-haul arm AirAsiaX, as well as the A330neo and A350.
AirAsiaX has 66 A330neo jets on order worth $19.6 billion at list prices, but is re-assessing its options for new routes.
The decision of Asia’s largest budget carrier - currently exclusively an Airbus customer - is seen as crucial as Airbus tries to shore up its slow-selling A330neo and Boeing looks to cement an advantage in wide-body sales, industry sources say.
With billions of dollars at stake, analysts caution that airplane purchase talks can swing either way at the last minute.
Airbus and AirAsia declined comment.
Airbus’s new sales chief Eric Schulz told Reuters on Wednesday that he aimed to win two new customers this year for the A330neo, a re-engined version of Airbus’s most-sold wide-body jet that enters service this summer.
On Thursday, Schulz said he had presented the latest flight test data to AirAsia executives at the Singapore Airshow, where Airbus also finalised an agreement to provide computerised predictive maintenance to the Malaysian budget airline group.
Airbus said the test data showed that the A330neo had a superior performance compared with Boeing jets.
Boeing officials deny the claim, saying its lightweight 787 flies more efficiently compared to the Airbus jet, which sells more cheaply on the market to adjust for the performance gap.
A showdown is looming between the 787 and A330neo as the two planemakers pursue airlines from Asia to America and Europe.
Airbus wants to fill unsold production spots for its A330 range to preserve its role as a promising source of cash for the company’s other operations.
Boeing is looking to cement sales of its newest wide-body jet and squeeze demand for the A330 family, whose unexpected rebound in recent years - helped by 787 delays - had not been anticipated when Boeing drew up the business case for the 787.
Boeing is ramping up production of the 787 to 14 aircraft a month from 12 after strong sales, but competition with the A330 has forced it to accept lower margins for the jet than planned, aircraft analysts say.
Airbus had hoped to prolong the A330’s recovery with the upgraded version but sales have been disappointing.
Many see 2018 as a potentially decisive year for the A330neo with consequences on the profit margins of both planemakers.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” an industry executive said. (Reporting by Tim Hepher and Liz Lee in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Himani Sarkar)