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Airbus aims to overtake Boeing fleet in Latin America next year

An A380 aircraft is seen through a window with an Airbus logo during the EADS / Airbus 'New Year Press Conference' in Hamburg January 17, 2012. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Airbus aims to have more airliners operating in Latin America than its U.S. rival Boeing for the first time next year, the European company's top executive in the region said on Tuesday.

The reversal of fortune for Airbus, the commercial aircraft subsidiary of European Aeronautic, Defense and Space Co (EAD.PA), underscores its fierce battle with Chicago-based Boeing Co (BA) for one of the world's fastest-growing travel markets.

Airbus expects its fleet will make up 52 percent of the two companies' total aircraft in the region in 2014 after outselling Boeing in five of the last six years. The Airbus share is up from 23 percent a decade ago and just 12 percent in 2000.

"We expect our market share should continue to increase in the coming years," said Rafael Alonso, executive vice-president for Airbus in Latin America, at a news conference. "A major achievement for us will be getting to 60 percent."

Boeing, which vastly outsold Airbus until about 15 years ago, continues to have an active global fleet about 50 percent bigger than Airbus, according to market surveys. But the Airbus surge in Latin America shows how quickly the tables can turn.

At the end of 2010, Airbus launched its A320neo single-aisle aircraft. The model had a new engine that promised dramatic fuel savings a full year before Boeing responded with its re-engined 737 MAX.

"They came out first with their 'neo', which gave them a headstart on sales," said Donna Hrinak, Boeing's most senior executive in Brazil, at another event in Sao Paulo on Tuesday. "We're keeping things competitive."

The region is a key battleground as both planemakers expect strong growth over the next two decades. Airbus projects passenger traffic in the region will expand an average 6 percent per year, second only to the Middle East. Boeing forecasts annual growth of 6.9 percent.

A Latin American fleet of over 1,200 planes will have to more than double by 2032 to keep up with demand, Alonso said at a news conference in Sao Paulo. Factoring in the renewal of old aircraft, Airbus forecasts delivery of 2,307 planes in the next 20 years, he said, focusing on airliners with more than 100 seats and cargo planes capable of carrying more than 10 tons.

Boeing's forecasts are even more aggressive, projecting Latin America's fleet to nearly triple by 2032 to 3,790 planes.

(Reporting by Brad Haynes; Editing by Jeb Blount and Ken Wills)