FAST-GROWING Vietnam Airlines expects to finalise plans by the end of this year for the phasing out of its ageing aircraft built by the former Soviet Union. The airline's deputy director general, Nguyen Duc Vinh, said the 12 Tupolev TU134s and the one Yakovlev Y40 would be replaced with modern aircraft by 1997 but no formal decision had been made. Mr Vinh said the airline was searching for new aircraft to lease to replace the ones on domestic routes. He said the former Soviet Union-made aircraft were up to 50 per cent less efficient than the Airbus Industrie A320s, ATR72s, Boeing 767-200s and 767-300s already in the airline's fleet and carried fewer passengers and cargo. The plans are part of a five-year fleet renewal programme that will see 30 new aircraft leased or bought by the turn of the century. Mr Vinh said agreement had just been finalised for the lease of 10 new A320s from Singapore's Region Air. They will replace the A320s leased from Air France and a United States firm, due to be returned by next year. The airline is also searching for new long-haul aircraft to lease for routes to Europe and expansion routes to North America. Mr Vinh said the normalisation of ties between Vietnam and the US had opened up 'many opportunities' for the airline, but the aircraft in its fleet did not have the range needed to make non-stop or one-stop services viable. He said Vietnam Airlines expected flights to the US to begin by 1997, and that it was looking to acquire long-haul Airbus Industrie A340s, McDonnell Douglas MD11s, Boeing 777s or Boeing 747-400s. The 747-400 was the least likely choice, because of its large capacity. 'That is a very good aeroplane, but it is probably too big for us,' Mr Vinh said. 'We will need a long-range aircraft for flights lasting 12 or 14 hours . . . and we are looking now. But we have to make sure we control our capacity so that we can compete.' Mr Vinh, who insisted the airline was turning a profit, said it had recorded growth of more than 35 per cent last year. That was deliberately cut from the expansion rate of about 50 per cent recorded each year since 1989, when the government announced a 'hands-off' policy in the operations of the state-owned carrier. 'We are growing but we are being very careful about growing too fast,' he said, adding that further expansion had been set at no more than 30 per cent a year. He said emphasis was being placed on training of Vietnamese pilots and cabin crew. Mr Vinh made the comments at the opening of the carrier's first overseas office in Hong Kong. He denied rumours that the airline would be privatised soon.