Fabrice Bregier, the chief executive of Airbus, left, and Yoshiharu Ueki, the president of Japan Airlines Limited (JAL), hold a model of an Airbus A350 aircraft in Tokyo yesterday. Airbus has won its first order from JAL, a major Boeing customer. Photo: Bloomberg

Barcelona / Tokyo - Airbus announced its first jet order from Japan Airlines Limited (JAL) yesterday, breaking open the last big aviation market dominated by Boeing in a move that suggests the US company may pay for the 787 Dreamliner’s troubled debut.

The landmark deal for 31 wide-body A350 jets with a combined $9.5 billion (R95bn) list price follows an intense battle between the plane makers as JAL and domestic rival ANA Holdings seek dozens of new long-haul jets over the coming decade. The agreement includes options for another 25 of the A350s.

It is also a potential blow to the Japanese aerospace industry, which builds large portions of Boeing’s jets. One-third of the 787 Dreamliner is built in the country.

“This is a huge win for Airbus and a big loss for Boeing,” said aerospace analyst Scott Hamilton, the managing director of Seattle-based Leeham.

“Airbus has been trying to break the wide-body monopoly of Boeing for decades and likewise Boeing has been wanting to keep Airbus out of JAL and ANA.”

Boeing has for decades seen off attempts by the European plane maker to secure an order with JAL, benefiting from links with Japanese suppliers and deep political ties between Tokyo and Washington to maintain a market share of more than 80 percent.

Delays to the 787 Dreamliner and its grounding after its batteries overheated have, however, tarnished its image and cast doubt on Boeing’s ability to deliver aircraft on time, according to industry experts. Both JAL and ANA are major Dreamliner buyers.

At the same time, bureaucratic and political influence over fleet purchases by JAL has waned.

Airbus also showed its readiness to move in on Boeing’s turf in the Japanese aerospace industry, including co-operation in research and development (R&D).

“With this order, it gives us more momentum to look for potential joint R&D efforts for the future generation of aircraft,” Fabrice Bregier, the chief executive of Airbus, told a joint news conference in Tokyo with JAL president Yoshiharu Ueki.

Ueki did not say what JAL would actually pay for the A350s, which vied with Boeing’s yet-to-be-launched 777X, but industry analysts said it would be typical to secure generous discounts in such a groundbreaking deal.

“This is seriously bad for Boeing. They need to do a little soul searching,” said Richard Aboulafia, an airline analyst with the Teal Group.

The 787 issues “inevitably led to doubts about execution, resources and time”.

Ueki denied problems with the 787 were a factor in the decision, even as he repeated JAL’s apologies for disruptions to service caused by the plane’s grounding in January. He attributed Airbus’s successful wooing of his company in part to timing: delivery of the A350, due to begin flying passengers next year, will ensure it is available when JAL needs it at the end of the decade.

The 777X’s debut is further away and less certain.

If it had chosen Boeing’s 777X, JAL would have had to commit again to being a launch customer for a new Boeing jet.

This is also a factor ANA will have to consider as it looks for about 25 new jets to replace its ageing fleet of long-haul Boeing 777s from 2020. ANA said it was still gathering information on the 777X and the A350.

The Dreamliner issues may have made JAL wary of buying an aircraft that Boeing has yet to officially commit to building. That gave Airbus a rare opening in Boeing’s best market.

“It’s the price to be paid for passivity, by not launching this plane one year ago,” said Aboulafia, referring to the 777X.

The deal and its impact on wide-bodied jet competition are likely to dominate a major aviation industry gathering in Barcelona this week. – Reuters