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Air show opens with $2.5 billion deal

PARIS, France (CNN) -- The world's largest air show has opened with United Airlines' parent company, UAL Corp., saying it intends to buy 100 jets worth $2.5 billion from France's Dassault Aviation.

The deal -- a planned order for 40 business aircraft and an option on an additional 60 -- was the first piece of business in what is expected to be a flurry of contracts unveiled at the eight-day Paris Air Show.

Exhibitors from 42 countries have displayed 242 civilian and military aircraft at Le Bourget airport north of the French capital.

The show, which takes place every other year, opened to the news media on Saturday.

Europe's Airbus Industries is presenting mock-ups of parts of its planned 555-seat jumbo airliner, the A380.

Rival Boeing Co. plans a presentation on its high-speed passenger plane concept -- the Sonic Cruiser -- and its Connexion program for providing in-flight Internet access for travellers.

As executives haggled in their business "chalets," Russian Sukhoi fighter jets and a Lockheed Martin F-16 rumbled through the cloudy skies to twist and somersault over the airfield.

World War II-era Spitfire and Mustang fighters added a nostalgic buzz, while a modern, helium-filled Zeppelin airship bobbed and dipped above the crowd.

Dassault struck its deal with United BizJets Holdings, Inc., UAL's new subsidiary that caters to business executives who are eager for use of a private jet but reluctant to pay the full price for one.

United BizJets will sell its planes in a fractional ownership program in which several owners buy a plane on a time-share basis.

Compared to its competitors, UAL has a higher percentage of customers who are business travellers.

"We concluded that commercial airlines only provide a portion of the air travel needs that these customers have," United BizJets chief executive Stuart Oran told the Associated Press.

United BizJets aims to have its first aircraft operating by the second quarter of next year and to take delivery of all 100 Dassault Falcon jets by 2007. The deal with Dassault is its first to be made public, Oran said.

United BizJets had previously said it was in advanced talks with General Dynamics Corp. to buy a number of Gulfstream aircraft.

"The fractional market has great potential for growth," Dassault president John Rosanvallon told a news conference. "UAL is entering the arena at a time of significant expansion. We welcome their participation and the positive impact it will bring to the market."

Established players in the fractional jet market include the NetJets program of Executive Jet Inc., a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

"Dassault Falcon jet is a respected leader at the high-end of the business jet market. It was only natural for us to select their aircraft when creating our fleet," Oran said. United BizJets is based in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Among the aircraft to be exhibited at the show will be the jewels in the American, European and Russian Air Forces.

Some of the special attractions are expected to be the Global Hawk, an American endurance plane without a pilot which is the size of a business jet and the B2 strategic stealth bomber, undetectable by radar, which was recently used in Kosovo.

The Ukranian-built Antonov 225, the world's biggest carrier which can transport 250 tonnes of cargo, is also expected to draw attention.

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