John Leahy, the longtime sales chief of Airbus SAS, was gliding through Los Angeles in a limousine, on the way to a morning sales call, when his cell phone rang with an urgent call from Manila.

Leahy flipped open his phone and said a curt hello. Then he nodded as one of his lieutenants passed along some key intelligence.

The Airbus sales team in Asia had gleaned from its web of contacts that Yang Ho Cho, the chairman of Korean Air, had scheduled a lunch that day in Los Angeles with Leahy's archrival, Alan Mulally, the chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Cho's organization was deep in the throes of making a multibillion-dollar decision to purchase either Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A350. And Leahy wanted to seize the opportunity to outmaneuver Boeing.

"Do you know what time he's meeting Mulally?' Leahy asked.

In the $50 billion business of selling passenger jets, outflanking your rival often can spell the difference between winning or losing orders big enough to swing the balance of global trade. For two decades, nobody has done that better than Airbus' indefatigable, silver-tongued salesman.

On this particular day, however, Leahy learned that Boeing had the upper hand. When he sat down with Cho over tea in the coffee shop of the Wilshire Grand Hotel, Cho told him that his technical team was leaning toward Boeing. The problem: Airbus engineers had failed to spend as much time as the Boeing team explaining why theirs was a better airplane.

"I guess we screwed up," Leahy concluded.

What Leahy is discovering is that in the high-stakes game of selling airplanes, it may be easier to be the pursuer than the pursued. When it swept past Boeing to become the world's largest jetmaker two years ago, Airbus roused the long-slumbering giant. And now the chase is on.

On Monday, five weeks after Leahy met with Cho, Korean Air announced it had ordered 10 Boeing 787s, while taking options on 10 more, partly because Boeing agreed to buy parts for the plane from the Koreans, souces say.

Northwest Airlines is also within days of buying 787s to update its aging fleet. Boeing and Northwest won't comment, but sources say a key part of the deal may be upfront financing from Boeing.

The two orders give Boeing's new program a major leg up in a battle that it had been losing badly for the past several years.

"Objectively, they've got the high ground right now," Leahy said on Tuesday. "I wanted Korean and Northwest."

Since 1994, the 54-year-old New York native has tormented his Chicago-based archrival by leading a sales assault that resulted in one of the most remarkable market flip-flops in modern business history.

But Boeing is fighting back hard with lower costs, an impressive new airplane and an all-out strategy focused on preventing Airbus from launching its own new product to compete.

If Boeing can win enough orders from airlines like Korean and Northwest, it might be able to kill the A350, which has yet to win launch authority from the Airbus board.

"They seem to be doing everything they can to stop the A350 from being an industrial launch,' said Leahy. "My job is to make sure that doesn't happen."

Airbus, he promised, will have 100 orders for the A350 in hand by the end of the year.

Ironically, Boeing may have Leahy to thank for many of the changes that allowed it back into the game. Watching Airbus soar from 18 percent of the market to 57 percent over the past decade has shaken Boeing from its bureaucratic torpor.