PARIS (Reuters) - Airbus signaled a change in priorities over tweaks to its biggest jets as its sales chief hinted at a possible decision this year to challenge Boeing in the 400-seat market while pushing talk of a revamped A380 to the middle of next decade.

John Leahy told Reuters any decision to launch a bigger A350, widely nicknamed A350-1100, would need to be made this year and that it would have to enter service soon after 2020, which is the entry-to-service date for Boeing's 406-seat 777-9.

"I think if we are going to do it we should do it this year because we don’t want to let Boeing have too much of a run with the 777-9X. They are bringing their airplane out in 2020 and we shouldn't be that far behind them," he said in an interview.


Such an aircraft could be powered by an upgrade of Rolls-Royce (RR.L) engines already used to power smaller models including the A350-1000, but that is up for discussion, he said.

"We need to be as common with what we have got as possible without trying to redesign the whole airplane and it has got to come down similar assembly lines as the ones we have got today," he said, adding it would not entail a complete new development.

Speaking separately, Airbus plane making chief executive Fabrice Bregier sounded a cautious note.

"It is true that we have started to study what we could do on top (of the A350-1000) because some airlines asked us and our duty is to look at what can be done. But this is not today’s priority," he told reporters after a news conference.

Leahy said Airbus is now spending more engineering time on the possible next step in A350 development than the question of whether to revamp the larger A380, whose recent sales woes appear to have been eased by lower oil prices.


If Airbus goes ahead with the so-called A380neo, it would enter service in 2024 or 2025, he said, about three years later than estimates floated by executives as recently as November.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher, editing by Astrid Wendlandt)