Anemic Airliner Sales in 2006?

The airliner market could slump by more than half this year to about 800 plane orders for Airbus and rival Boeing Co. (BA) from a record 2,057 net orders in 2005, Airbus' top marketing man said.

"I think we'd be right around that level," John Leahy told reporters at the Asian Aerospace air show in Singapore on Wednesday, adding "Asia will still be very strong."

Leahy said he expected several airlines to sign up in the next few months for the mid-sized A350 model due in 2010, and he expected to sign two new customers for the 555-seat A380 this year.

Asked about possible new models, Leahy acknowledged that new products were under consideration, including a 1,000-seat stretched version of the A380 and a freighter version of the popular A330-200 passenger plane.

"We always look at updating our products ... it comes down to what customers tell us they want," he said.

A freighter version of the A330 could speed the end of the older A300/310 family of planes, and Leahy said Airbus was assessing the economic viability of keeping that line open.

He also said airlines were asking about changes to the slow-selling A340, a four-engined model that is being outsold by the 2-engined Boeing 777 as airlines look for lower fuel consumption amid soaring fuel costs.

One idea would be to apply technologies developed for the newer A380 and A350 models to upgrade the A340.

Leahy declined to comment on media reports saying Airbus was already trying to sell an enhanced version of the A340-600.