At a time when many investors and lenders are doing everything they can to avoid risk, American Airlines parent AMR ( AMR) stepped up last week and made a bold bet on the future.

The world's largest airline announced what could become the biggest aircraft order in its history, saying it wants 42 Boeing ( BA) 787-900s, with options for 58 more. The list price for 100 airplanes is close to $20 billion, although carriers never pay the full price and they don't disclose the exact cost.

For American, the order compares with one it placed in three tranches between 1982 and 1987 for 260 MD-80s. Those jets were key to American's dominance in the 1990s. Taking all 100 Boeing planes would enable American to operate the second-largest 787 fleet in the world -- assuming Australia's Qantas acquires all 115 airplanes in its own order -- and to maintain a dominant international role.

"We remain focused on the future even as we battle through the present," said CFO Tom Horton, on an earnings conference call last week.

The order comes at an unusual time in the business cycle, says Bill Swelbar, a research engineer in MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. "Historically, airlines have ordered airplanes at the top of the cycle, but American is willing to step up at a time that is toward the bottom. They are saying 'we are willing to commit this company and its capital, because we are going to be here for the long haul.'"

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