DUBAI (Reuters) - A senior Airbus executive predicted continued strong demand for the revamped A320neo jet as carriers scramble to save fuel and raised the prospect of quick new sales at the Dubai Air Show.
Demand for the jet could push Airbus even higher than the company’s newly increased target of 1,500 orders in 2011, Airbus Middle East President Habib Fekih said.
“Since the future looks more and more oriented to high fuel costs, the demand for the neo will continue. It started at Paris, it continued during the summer and it’ll not stop,” Fekih said in interview, referring to June’s Paris Air Show.
Fekih, the veteran of a quarter century of sales battles between Airbus and Boeing, was speaking to Reuters at the November 13-17 Dubai Air Show.
During that time Europe’s debt crisis has spiraled and aircraft financing has become harder to find. But Fekih said this would not deter airlines needing to replace inefficient jets or to plan expansion while squeezed by high oil prices.
“At this air show we are seeing it again and you’ll see it again tomorrow (Tuesday). We’ll make more announcements on the same subject,” he said on Monday, referring to the A320neo.
Executives at the Dubai event said there were expectations that Qatar Airways would buy Airbus and Boeing jets.
The airline was expected to place an order for A320neos and A380 superjumbos in Paris in June but delayed any announcement.
Airbus has almost 1,300 orders and commitments for the 150-seat aircraft, which aims to deliver up to 15 percent in fuel savings starting from 2015 mainly due to new engines.
It sold 50 of the planes worth $4.6 billion to Kuwaiti lessor Alafco on Monday as lessors join in.
“This year is for the neo .... Airbus has now already exceeded the 1000th order for the neo and I think it’ll be even more before we close the year,” Fekih said.
“I‘m confident totally that Airbus will exceed 1,500-1,600 orders this year. This is doable because we see how much we have in the bag already. If we add what we have today plus a few others in the coming few days, you will be close. Then, a few here and there and the number is easily reachable.”
Airbus logged 1,372 gross orders in 2011 up to the end of October, dominated by the A320neo surge. Boeing responded by agreeing to launch its own revamped model called the 737 MAX.
Airbus parent EADS last week raised the target for Airbus gross orders before cancellations to 1,500 from 1,000, marking a historic year despite the growing debt crisis.
“It is the first time in aviation history a manufacturer has exceeded this high number of orders in a year. No manufacturer ever reached 1,500 in a single year,” Fekih said.
The quiet-spoken former Tunis Air official joined Airbus as North Africa salesman in 1986 shortly after John Leahy, now sales director, joined the sales force in the United States.
Although outwardly very different personalities, the two salesmen were given marching orders by then Airbus chief Jean Pierson to “get out and sell” as Airbus battled to break into the U.S. market and extend a growing base in the Middle East.
For a while Fekih and Leahy had the only two mobile phones in the company at a time when such devices were clunky and expensive. The bills horrified Pierson who later admitted to checking them each month to see which of his proteges was most productive.
Over two decades later, Fekih’s Middle East operation has a market share of 60 percent by number of pending deliveries against Boeing. It makes up 10 percent of Airbus’ backlog by volume, but a far larger proportion by value because of the telephone number-sized orders for long-range wide-body jets.
Fekih negotiated the details of huge Airbus sales to Gulf carriers including 90 A380 superjumbos to Emirates in Dubai.
Now, he and others in the company face a new challenge after Emirates placed a record $18 billion additional order for Boeing’s 777 long-range jetliner on day one of the Dubai show.
Although Emirates spreads purchases between manufacturers as it accumulates a fleet large enough to support Dubai’s aims to be a global hub, analysts say the deal may put pressure on Airbus to further perfect its slow-selling planned A350-1000.
Fekih denied the 350-seat plane, with four customers for 75 aircraft, had any problems in gaining market acceptance.
Asked about recent criticisms by the chief executive of Qatar Airways of plan to beef up the A350-1000’s Rolls-Royce engines, Fekih said, ”We discussed with him and we are on track with Qatar Airways. There’s no problem at all.
“Let’s wait and see what the A350 will do. I prefer that the customer and the market judge us on our performance rather than speculation.”
Writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by Richard Chang