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Branson's spaceship steals the spotlight at airshow

British billionaire Richard Branson poses for the photographers beside a replica of the Virgin Galactic. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Farnborough, United Kingdom: British tycoon Richard Branson stole the show here Wednesday, announcing that he and his family would be on Virgin Galactic's first trip into space, as Airbus and Boeing eked out more plane orders.

Branson was showcasing a full size mock-up of his SpaceShipTwo (SS2) aircraft at the biennial Farnborough airshow near London -- a key event in the aviation sector calendar that typically sees planemakers Airbus and Boeing battle for orders.

"Obviously this is the most exciting adventure I have ever undertaken," Branson, founder of the Virgin Galactic space programme, told AFP.

"It's both an entrepreneurial and personal adventure in being able to build a spaceship and ask my (two adult) children to come along."

In all, 529 people have signed up for the 60-mile (96-kilometre), two-hour ride into space, at a cost of $200,000, 162,000 euros each. Around 120 of them were at the Branson event in Farnborough.

Actor Ashton Kutcher and scientist Stephen Hawking are among the aspiring astronauts who have signed up to the programme that gets under way in late 2013 to early 2014, according to the Virgin empire head.

Irish businessman and author Bill Cullen, 70, was the first to sign up for a trip, in 2004.

"I wanted to be the first Irishman in space and I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "I've been interested in space ever since I followed comic hero Dan Dare when I was a kid."

The WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) aircraft that will help launch SS2 into space will also be used for a new launch vehicle, LauncherOne, which will take small satellites into space for around one tenth of the present cost, Branson said.

He addressed media on the third day of the week-long Farnborough show which has featured contract announcements for civilian and military planes alongside fly-pasts.

Amid a weak global economy and government cutbacks, the 2012 event has been more subdued compared with recent years.

The "level of orders represents a notable fall-off in the eyes of more optimistic aerospace investors, and makes the show unlikely to serve as a positive catalyst for the industry," said analysts at Barclays Capital.

"Worth noting is that the show isn't over yet, and it represents just one week in a year that is expected to see good, albeit lower, growth in (plane) backlogs."

European planemaker Airbus came out on top for a second day running at Farnborough, announcing firm orders for its aircraft versus a sizeable number of commitments for Boeing products.

US giant Boeing had upstaged its arch-rival on Monday -- the show's first day.

France-based Airbus on Wednesday announced deals for its planes worth up to $5.4 billion (4.4 billion euros) -- including a firm order from US leasing company CIT for 10 of its long-haul A330 planes worth $2.3 billion.

"When a leading leasing company like CIT, places a repeat order for our aircraft, we take that as a strong sign of customer satisfaction," said Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier.

Airbus added that Hong Kong-based China Aircraft Leasing Company had committed to buy 36 of its A320 single-aisle planes together worth $3.1 billion.

"This is an important milestone for CALC," said the Chinese group's chief executive Mike Poon.

"We have a long-term commitment to the aviation industry and are very pleased to establish a relationship with Airbus."

The deal includes a commitment to buy eight A321s, the largest member of the A320 family, but none of the manufacturer's future A320neos.

Boeing separately announced that Irish leasing company Avolon planned to buy 25 of its short-haul aircraft, including 15 of its new fuel-efficient 737 MAX jets.

Boeing said the deal was worth $2.3 billion at list prices, as it looked to firm up the commitment.

 

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