Next week at the Paris Air Show, the largest aviation gathering of the year, Airbus will undoubtedly announce a lot of airplane orders.
But Boeing is set to steal the show.
The most influential player in the aviation business is working to finalize this weekend a huge order for about 50 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, worth at least $5 billion even with discounts.
The deal will ensure that International Lease Finance Corp. (ILFC), the biggest airplane leasing company in the world, owns more Dreamliners than any other customer. The biggest previous 787 order from a single buyer was All Nippon Airways' 50-plane launch order in 2004.
ILFC founder and CEO Stephen Udvar-Hazy is likely to announce the order Tuesday.
In contrast, Hazy will hold back any commitment to the rival Airbus A350 jet until the European planemaker gives more solid and detailed specifications for the aircraft. Some other big industry players seem likely to do the same.
For Boeing, capping the show with the big, unexpected ILFC order would be a surprise that extends the 787's strong momentum and nicely sets up the rollout of the first Dreamliner in Everett next month. But Airbus could leave Paris still short of a convincing demonstration that its airplane is a solid competitor.
Hazy hinted at his plans in an interview at the annual conference of the world's top airline executives in Vancouver, B.C., last week. Subsequent conversations with two Boeing executives with knowledge of the negotiations established the size and likely timing of the deal.
Both executives cautioned that the deal isn't yet sealed and could be delayed beyond the air show. But Hazy's comments in the Vancouver interview suggest strongly that he wants to announce in Paris.
What does he see happening at the air show?
"We're looking for more momentum for Boeing," Hazy said.
Is he expecting significant Boeing orders in Paris? "Yes," he said emphatically, flashing a big smile.
From him? "Let's just say Boeing top management has been spending a lot of time with ILFC," Hazy said. "Draw your own conclusions."
ILFC placed an initial order for 20 Dreamliners in fall 2005, giving the new airplane an important endorsement. At the Farnborough Air Show in London last year, Hazy added two more 787s.
The Paris order would be worth $7.6 billion at list prices. But Hazy will certainly have won a large discount. Using estimates from aviation valuation firm Avitas, the ILFC purchase price should be about $5.1 billion.
Hazy has ordered just more than 700 Boeing and 600 Airbus jets since founding ILFC in 1977. Airlines across the globe tap his company's massive jet portfolio when they want to lease, rather than buy, a jet.
The strategic importance of the Paris deal to Boeing is that ILFC will lease its 787s to many airlines around the world, widening the Dreamliner's already broad customer base. Those airlines are likely to place follow-on orders with Boeing as they add more planes to their fleets.
In an interview at a March trade conference, Hazy said he could see ILFC eventually owning 100 787s.
As for the new competitive jet from Airbus, Hazy said last week that he's not ready to give his seal of approval to the A350.
That jet is going through its third major iteration. The latest revamp, an entirely new airplane with a composite plastic airframe like the 787's, was announced a year ago at Farnborough.
But since then Airbus hasn't even firmed up most of the orders placed for the original version of the A350, including one from ILFC.
"The air show is a critical milestone," Hazy said. "Airbus is working hard to convert some of those old orders to new orders. It's going slower than we all thought."
Hazy said Airbus executives' intense focus on fixing production problems with the A380 superjumbo jet has diverted management and engineering resources and "hurt the A350 program."
"My team at ILFC just doesn't feel Airbus has made enough progress," he said. "The [A350] specification definition we have today is not at a stage we're 100 percent comfortable with. ... We can't commit until we know what we're buying.
"Airbus knows this. The pressure is on them. The same question is being asked by all the other customers for the A350."
In Vancouver, another big prospective customer for the 787 or the A350 echoed that assessment.
"On the A350, we've seen nothing with regard to performance guarantees," said Maurice Flanagan, vice chairman of Emirates, the huge Middle Eastern carrier based in Dubai. Flanagan said Emirates will wait for more detail from Airbus before deciding on its order later this year.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, said his airline is also in no hurry to decide its pending order. Walsh said he'll decide in September the precise mix of new planes to replace 20 747 jumbo jets and 14 767 midsize widebodies.
Adam Pilarski, a noted industry analyst with Avitas, said things are going so exceptionally well at Boeing that it doesn't even need any lift from the air show.
"Airbus, on the other hand, needs good news," Pilarski said. "They have to restore their credibility."
The European manufacturer faces constant negative publicity around the A380 delays, the lack of solid orders on the A350, and a massive restructuring push that will see Airbus reduce its work force by 10,000 and sell off plants across Europe.
In Paris, Airbus will likely play up orders from Qatar Airways of the United Arab Emirates, Aer Lingus of Ireland and Kingfisher of India.
But these already-reported orders come from airlines that are either relatively small (Aer Lingus) or have money to burn (Qatar, Kingfisher).
Airbus' chief commercial officer, John Leahy, will work his usual sales magic to land commitments from airlines known to be on the fence, such as US Airways.
Still, nothing can match a massive ILFC order to make an impression in the aviation world.
Pilarski said Airbus must deliver significant A350 orders from somewhere other than the Middle East. As of now, the A380 order book is dominated by Emirates of Dubai, and the A350 prospective order book by Qatar of Abu Dhabi.
"If your major customer in each program is a country that wouldn't make it into the top 100 cities in China, that's not very good," said Pilarski. "You get Steve [Hazy] ... that's a totally different story."
"Paris would be the place to do it," he said.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com