Lao Airlines has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Airbus to buy two A320s “white tails” originally destined for Libya.

These white tails were built for Libyan national carrier Afriqiyah Airways which suspended operations when NATO forces on March 19 started imposing a no fly-zone over the country.

A well-placed industry executive says Airbus has one more A320 white tail still available for sale and that all three aircraft have very advanced inflight entertainment (IFE) systems. The fact that the aircraft already have the Afriqiyah Airways’ interior and IFE system means they are a challenge to place with other carriers because the new operator may need to do some retrofitting to ensure commonality with its fleet.

Lao Airlines Deputy Commercial Director Noudeng Chanthaphasouk says the MoU was signed with Airbus on Aug. 2 and that these two CFM-powered A320s are configured with 126 economy-class and 16 business-class seats. “Libya was supposed to buy these two aircraft, but they can’t buy these aircraft now, so Airbus is selling them to us.”

He says Lao Airlines aims to take delivery of the first at the end of October, and the other at the beginning of November. The plan is to launch a three-times-weekly service on Nov. 1 from Laotian capital Vientiane to Singapore, says Chanthaphasouk, adding that he was in Singapore last week meeting with executives of Singapore Changi Airport. Chanthaphasouk declines to say which other international destinations he plans to launch.

The carrier currently operates only turboprops—four ATR 72s and four Xian Aircraft MA60s—but in June 2003, it did start leasing an A320 from Singapore Aircraft Leasing, but it returned that aircraft soon after. Lao Airlines’ decision to lease two A320s could potentially put an end to an earlier deal in which Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac) was expected to deliver two 90-seat ARJ21 regional jets to Lao Airlines. The deal is important to Comac because Lao Airlines is the ARJ21’s first export customer.

When asked if Lao Airlines still plans to take delivery of the two ARJ21s, Chanthaphasouk says it is up to the government to decide. “The Chinese have a government-to-government deal,” he says, referring to the fact that the contract was between the Laos government and China. “Comac hasn’t yet received Chinese type certification from the Civil Aviation Administration of China for the ARJ21. We can’t wait,” he adds.

Comac’s ARJ21 program has experienced numerous delays over the years, but the latest is that it aims to receive ARJ21 type certification in the coming months and achieve entry into service at year-end. The first operator will be China’s Chengdu Airlines, which is part-owned by Comac. There are several other Chinese carriers, such as Shandong Airlines and Shanghai Airlines, that ordered ARJ21s before Lao Airlines. That said, the Chinese carriers appear to be in no hurry to receive the ARJ21.