• European planemaker books $3.6 billion contract for 30 planes
  • Sales chief Leahy says at least transaction is `a real deal'

Airbus Group SE escaped order oblivion at the Dubai Air Show after negotiating a last-minute agreement to sell 30 narrow-body planes to VietJet Aviation -- prompting the European planemaker to take a swipe at Boeing Co. over the announcement of a deal that had already been booked.

VietJet agreed to buy nine current-generation A321s and 21 upgraded A321neos worth $3.6 billion at list prices after negotiations that carried on into the night Monday and were concluded shortly before the order announcement on Tuesday morning, John Leahy, Airbus’s sales chief, said at the Dubai expo.

“This shows it was a real deal,” Leahy said, jabbing at the hoopla over Boeing’s $8 billion sale of 75 single-aisle 737 planes to Jet Airways India Ltd. that it emerged had been on its rival’s books for the best part of two years.

Neither manufacturer had much to celebrate by the close of the biennial Dubai event’s third day, with barely $4 billion of new orders unveiled -- excluding Boeing’s Jet deal but factoring in two 777 freighters sold to Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways PJSC. That compares with a record $179 billion of jetliner transactions announced at the last show in 2013.

IAG Retread

Airbus itself coughed up an order Monday that had already been declared when it said that British Airways parent IAG SA had agreed to buy 15 A320neos and four twin-aisle A330s. The London-based company had announced the deal last Thursday, three days before the show.

VietJet’s purchase also did nothing to disguise the fact that Airbus’s flagship A380 superjumbo is headed for a third year without a new airline customer if Leahy fails to conjure a deal in the next 7 1/2 weeks.

The executive said in Dubai he’s working with two potential buyers on a total of 32 planes, so could still make good on a June pledge to bring in 25 orders this year, though the talks could equally run into 2016. Saudi Arabian Airlines and Royal Air Maroc have said they’re interested in the double-decker.

Both Airbus and Boeing are struggling to find buyers after already filling their order books with contracts for a succession of new aircraft models introduced over the past decade.

Emirates Stalls

Gulf customers, which dominated previous Dubai shows, have been particularly prominent in racking up huge backlogs. Leading local operator Emirates, the world’s biggest long-haul carrier, is also stalling on follow-on A380 orders as it seeks a re-engined version, while President Tim Clark has declined to decide on Airbus’s latest A350 wide-body until he sees more performance data.

Airbus’s order blank in the first two days of the expo was unusual because the Toulouse-based company has traditionally gone out of its way to make a splash at such events, front-loading announcements to make early headlines, schmoozing would-be customers to bring in deals, and even -- according to Boeing -- storing up contracts to maximize the end-of-show tally.

Leahy said the general business trend is more important than show-to-show comparisons. Airbus’s order backlog spans the next decade and Boeing’s eight years, effectively limiting future supply and bolstering prices.

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