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Originally published March 20, 2012 at 7:48 PM | Page modified March 21, 2012 at 12:30 PM

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Aircraft lessors say Boeing's MAX can snare half the market

Boeing's 737 MAX can fare well against the Airbus A320neo, despite its later entry and its design challenges, industry heavyweights said at a Phoenix conference.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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PHOENIX — Boeing's new narrowbody jet contender, the 737 MAX, had a later entry into the market than the Airbus A320neo, and its design poses difficult issues for Boeing engineers as they integrate a larger engine under the wing with minimal ground clearance.

But Tuesday, the final day of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) conference, a panel of industry heavyweights said the MAX can achieve market parity with the neo.

The outcome of the next big battle in this narrowbody competition is imminent, with United Airlines expected soon to place a market-moving order.

Some industry insiders here said they expect United to move within weeks to replace that part of its aging 757 fleet that flies domestic routes.

It could go with the Boeing 737 MAX 9 or the Airbus A321 variant of the neo, each featuring new engines. It might also take some of the current-generation 737s or A320s if the pricing and availability is right.

Boeing and Airbus gave dueling presentations the previous day, arguing over the physics of engine size and how much that matters to fuel efficiency for their forthcoming planes.

Andy Shankland, Airbus senior vice president, asserted the A321neo would be 12 percent more fuel efficient than the 737 MAX 9.

Speaking after him, Mike Bair, Boeing senior vice president, showed an analysis that concluded the MAX would be 5 percent more fuel efficient than the neo.

Nico Buchholz, the executive vice president in charge of fleet management at Germany's Lufthansa, said in an interview he's open to buying either airplane.

He pointed out that the two airplanes today have different weights (the 737 is lighter) and different engine sizes, yet have similar overall economics and split the market fairly evenly.

At the closing session, the leasing executives offered their opinions.

Steven Udvar-Hazy, chief executive of Air Lease Corp. and a leading industry figure, said Boeing is "somewhat handicapped" in that it offers only one engine, from the General Electric joint venture CFM International, while Airbus offers a choice between that and a Pratt & Whitney engine.

But Hazy noted the current 737s have only one engine source, and he bought more than 500 of the latest generation of those.

Ray Sisson, chief executive of lessor AWAS, said Boeing can overcome the restrictions it faces due to minimal ground clearance under the wing, which limits the size of the engine it can hang on it.

"Boeing has terrific engineers," said Sisson. "I'm confident they'll solve it."

And Henri Courpron, CEO of International Lease Finance Corp. and a former Airbus executive, said even if the MAX's engine did fall a bit short of the Airbus engine in fuel efficiency, Boeing could make up the economic difference in other ways, including pricing.

"This will remain a balanced market," he said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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