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Airbus SE says it struck a preliminary deal to build 60 new A220 planes for Air France, a substantial boost for the European manufacturer’s smallest jet as it expands production in Canada.

Leiden, Netherlands-based Airbus confirmed Tuesday that the Air France-KLM Group signed a memorandum of understanding for 60 A220-300 airliners, to be built at its assembly facility in Mirabel, Que., and flown by Air France. Airbus took over the site last year when it won control of Bombardier’s money-losing C Series jet family, which it renamed the A220.

“It’s a big, big positive signal” for the A220 program and could spur orders from other rivals, said Addison Schonland of boutique aerospace consultancy AirInsight in Windham, N.H. Air France plans to take delivery of the first A220 jet in September, 2021. No financial details of the deal were disclosed.

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“The screws are going to be put on the people working at the Canadian factory to hurry up and make them faster,” Mr. Schonland said of the A220 jets. “They were very slow under the previous regime.”

The deal with Air France increases the odds that Airbus will move ahead with a plan, still awaiting formal approval, to invest in a new preassembly operation at Mirabel designed to support production of the A220. The proposed operation would prepare complete sections of the aircraft, which would then be moved to a separate final assembly line.

Airbus is currently working toward a goal of increasing the rate of production at Mirabel to a maximum of 10 planes a month, a threshold it expects to reach in the middle of the next decade. The company has hired about 300 employees for the operation over the past year and now has 2,500 employees working on the A220 program, Airbus spokeswoman Annabelle Duchesne said.

Air France said it will use the A220 jets on short- and medium-haul routes to replace its fleet of A318 and A319 planes, which will be gradually phased out. The carrier said it will be able to reduce its environmental footprint with the A220-300, saying the airliner generates 20 per cent fewer carbon-dioxide emissions than comparable jets in its class and is twice as quiet.

Hamstrung by a debt load of US$8.7-billion and a lingering perception that it did not have the resources to play in the big leagues of global plane making, Bombardier was struggling to sell C Series planes back in 2017. It explored several options for the program, including a partnership with Boeing, The Globe and Mail previously reported.

Bombardier spent billions of dollars developing the C Series but finally handed control of the jet family to Airbus after concluding it would benefit more from the European plane maker’s marketing power and production cost efficiencies. The Montreal company retains a 34-per-cent stake in the partnership while the Quebec government owns 16 per cent.

There is evidence Airbus’s industrial might has brightened the prospects for the A220, an aircraft specifically designed for the 100-150 seat market. The manufacturing giant has been trying to boost sales of the plane by offering package deals together with its flagship A320, according to Reuters.

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At the Paris Air Show in June, U.S. carriers Delta Air Lines and JetBlue confirmed they would order more A220 units while lessors Nordic Aviation Capital and Air Lease Corp. also made recent commitments to buy the plane. In all, Airbus now has firm purchase orders for 551 A220 planes from 21 customers.

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