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Japan Airlines Corp. said Friday it will sign a contract with Boeing Co. of the United States to buy 30 737 jetliners, with an option for 10 more, foiling a bid by Europe’s Airbus consortium to break into the U.S.-dominated market.

The nation’s largest carrier declined to disclose the price of the deal, which will be signed in the next few months, but said the catalog price for the 30 planes is about 200 billion yen. Airlines usually get discounts on large orders.

The new line of 737s will replace JAL’s aging short-haul fleet, including MD-81s and Boeing 737-400s, as each plane is retired, it said. The new 737 series features at least three different models, but the 180-seat 737-800, which has a range of about 4,500 km, is expected to make up the bulk of the order. The older 737-400, by comparison, carries only 150 passengers and has a range of about 3,300 km.

The new 737s are part of JAL’s preparations for the expansion of Haneda airport in Tokyo in 2009, the carrier said. While the new planes will probably serve on JAL’s domestic routes, their extended range would allow them to fly to more international destinations as well, including China and South Korea.

But the revamp also reflects the industry’s need to address the challenges of its workforce, which is both shrinking and aging, and its market, which is marked by strong demand and expansion.

To this end, JAL — the holding company of Japan Airlines International Co. and Japan Airlines Domestic Co. — announced the same day that it plans to merge with the two firms to streamline the group. The reorganization may also include ticketing agency JAL Sales Co., JAL said.

“Under more efficient management, we will restructure our business and cost system to be more flexible to cope with the unpredictable business environment,” JAL’s group chief executive, Isao Kaneko, told a news conference in Tokyo.

The merger will involve paring about a third of the 62 executives at the four firms and slashing the number of employees as a whole.

Japan Airlines Co. and Japan Air System Co. integrated operations under a holding company in October 2002 and were reorganized into domestic and international units in April.

JAL also reported that it returned to the black in the April-December period with a net profit of 79.2 billion yen, compared with its net loss of 53.8 billion yen in the same period a year ago.

The carrier said the improvement in profits came from a recovery in international passengers. International travelers plunged during the year to last March due to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the war in Iraq.

Information from AFP-Jiji added

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