Boeing's Jet Plans Taking Off

Times Staff Writer

The prospects for Boeing Co.'s proposed 7E7 passenger jet appeared to be improving as the company Thursday concluded an important two-day conference with more than 40 of the world's largest airlines in a bid to drum up interest in the fuel-efficient aircraft.

Several airline executives attending the meeting in Seattle said they were intrigued by the potential cost savings in operating the highly efficient aircraft and would seriously consider purchasing it.

The jet "will be a superb machine for the airlines in terms of its economy," said Peter Gardner, vice president of Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. To match the airplane's efficiency, "the competition is really going to have to stretch out."

The 7E7, also dubbed the Dreamliner, is Boeing's latest proposal to counter archrival Airbus, the European aircraft maker that is overtaking Boeing as the world's largest commercial aircraft maker. Airbus recently began production of the A380, the world's largest commercial jetliner with a capacity of more than 550 passengers.

Boeing, contending that passengers won't want to fly in such a large aircraft, has drawn up plans for the twin-aisle 7E7. It would carry about 250 people as far as 9,000 miles using about 20% less fuel than jetliners with a similar passenger capacity. The increased fuel efficiency represents a considerable savings for cash-strapped airlines that have been struggling to recover from a severe slump in air travel.

The 7E7 would be made mostly of composites to reduce weight, would have more-fuel-efficient engines and would be assembled using significantly fewer people. To help make the plane more affordable, Boeing is expected to spend as much as 40% less than the estimated $10 billion it cost to develop the firm's last new jet, the 777, in 1995.

This week's unusual gathering -- the manufacturer typically meets individually with airlines -- came a few days after Boeing Chairman Philip Condit said the probability was high that the company's board would take the first step toward building the jet. Boeing said it could deliver the first 7E7 by 2008.

The directors are scheduled to meet next month and a source said that so far much of the internal debate has not been on whether to begin building the aircraft but how to trim development costs.

Airlines and analysts have been wary of Chicago-based Boeing's promises to develop a new airplane after the company pulled the plug on plans for an enlarged 747 jumbo jet and then the super-fast Sonic Cruiser.

But in recent weeks, those lingering doubts have been waning, according to analysts. "Boeing's board of directors is likely to give the green light," said Pierre A. Chao, senior aerospace analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston.

On Thursday, Boeing's stock rose 83 cents to $39.90 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.

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