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By JAMES WALLACE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
EVERETT -- On the third floor of the headquarters building here for The
Boeing Co.'s widebody jetliners, a small, nondescript sign points the way to
the office of Walt Gillette, top manager for the 747X program.
"747-500/600 Program Office," the sign reads.
It's a piece of historical
Boeing trivia, put there in
jest when Gillette moved
in, by John Hayhurst, the
Boeing executive who a
few years ago headed the
program to build an
all-new superjumbo that
could carry upward of
Boeing halted work on
the 747-500/600 in
January 1997 after its market studies showed there was not enough demand
for a superjumbo to justify the huge costs of developing a new airplane. That
market would be left to Airbus Industrie and its $12 billion 555-passenger
Instead, Boeing decided to bank its near-term jumbo-jet future on the $4
billion 747X, a family of derivative airplanes that could carry more people
longer distances with greater efficiency than the current 416-passenger
747-400. A new fourth deck will have room for crew rest and even sky beds
But so far, the company has yet to land a single firm order for the 747X,
raising questions about its strategy. Airbus, meanwhile has officially started
work on the A3XX -- now called the A380 -- with 60 firm orders and more
Gillette and other Boeing executives maintain they are not concerned. Orders
for the 747X will come, they say, and perhaps very soon.
"We are on schedule," Gillette said in a recent interview in his office, where
engineering drawings of the 747X planes are tacked to the walls. "We are
already spending money to get to September 2005."
That's the target date for the first 747X to be delivered to the first customer.
The timetable has been carefully worked out to even the day when the 747X
will make its first test flight -- Friday, Dec. 17, 2004, the 101st anniversary of
the Wright brothers' first flight.
To get there, Boeing must land its first orders by the end of the year.
Gillette acknowledged it would be "helpful" to have the first 747X orders by
But whether those orders come sooner or not until year's end, the 747X "is
going to happen" said Walt Orlowski, general manager for all Boeing 747
Orlowski just returned from a trip to Frankfurt, Germany, to meet with
Lufthansa executives about the 747X, and he remains confident Boeing will get
enough order commitments to give the official go-ahead this year.
But Boeing's commitment to the project has been questioned by potential
customers. When Virgin Atlantic, one of Boeing's best 747 customers,
ordered the A380 late last year, Virgin's colorful chairman, Sir Richard
Branson, said the 747X really wasn't in the running because Boeing never
made a serious offer.
And just before his death in a plane crash last month, Michael Chowdry, the
founder and chairman of cargo carrier Atlas Air, was quoted as saying he was
not sure if Boeing was committed to the 747X. Atlas, the world's largest
operator of 747 freighters, is mulling whether to buy freighter versions of the
A380 or 747X.
Gillette and Orlowski say Boeing will build the 747X.
If Boeing doesn't, it may be the best-laid ruse since the Allies convinced
Germany in World War II they would storm the beaches at Calais rather than
Gillette, a 34-year Boeing veteran who previously was the company's chief
engineer, was named to head the 747X program in October by commercial
airplanes boss Alan Mulally. Underscoring Boeing's seriousness about the
747X, Gillette was given the office first occupied by Mulally when he was
named vice president and general manager of what became the very successful
Gillette recently named his 747X program leaders, including a public relations
team headed by Russ Young, Boeing's longtime safety spokesman.
Boeing is well along with its engineering plans for the 747X, which consists of
two basic airplane designs. One is a stretch version of the 747-400 that would
carry about 525 passengers.
The other is a super-long-range jumbo that would carry about 425 passengers
more than 9,000 nautical miles.
Freighter versions of both planes are being offered to potential customers.
Gillette and other Boeing executives recently decided that the 747X planes will
be certified as all-new aircraft designs rather than as derivative models.
Even though this will add slightly to the development cost, it will eliminate
arguments with the Federal Aviation Administration and European aviation
authorities over which parts of the 747X can be changed and which cannot.
"The formal process has started; we are in a development mode," Gillette said.
In a building a couple miles from Boeing's Everett factory, engineers have built
an elaborate wooden mock-up to show customers what the new 747X interior
will look like.
The biggest change from the current model is what engineers have done to
carve out space above the main cabin, space now used for various systems on
Those systems are moved off to the side on the 747X, making room for the
storage of galley carts as well crew rest bunks off a center walk way more
than 6 feet high.
The newest addition to the mock-up are "sky bunks" for those passengers
who might want to pay a little extra to have their own private sleeping quarters.
The sky bunks in the mock-up were a big hit during a recent
Boeing-sponsored customer symposium on the 747X.
Gillette said the additional space means Boeing will have the world's first
four-deck airplane. In addition to the main passenger deck and cargo deck,
the 747 carries passengers in the "hump" behind the cockpit.
The A380, which Airbus is counting on to displace Boeing's flagship 747 as
the queen of the skies, is a 239-foot-long transportation behemoth that will
boast two full passenger decks and a windowless third deck below for cargo
"Airbus has a very hard task," Gillette said. "We understand that. Some of us
were on the 777 project from day one. Creating an all-new airplane in a
specific time period is really hard work. It's a six-year task without a weekend
"The 747 has been in a state of continuous evolution. The basic design concept
for a four-deck airplane is still as sound as it was 30 years ago. We are just
bringing it forward."
The first 747X orders are likely to be for the freighter version.
The worldwide cargo market is growing faster than the passenger market and
Orlowski acknowledged there has been more interest in the 747X Stretch
freighter than the passenger version.
Likely customers for the freighter could be Atlas Air, Cargolux and Lufthansa.
One potential customer, FedEx, recently decided to order the A380 freighter
rather than the 747X Stretch freighter.
In an interview last week in Europe with Reuters, FedEx Chief Executive Fred
Smith said the A380 was a "quantum leap" over the 747X. Boeing strongly
disputes that, saying its 747X will be as efficient if not more so than the A380.
Time will tell. The passenger version of the A380 will not enter service until
2006 and the freighter version in 2008.
Gillette and Orlowski say the 747X -- though they can't predict which version
or whether it will be a passenger or freighter plane -- remains on track to enter
service several months before the A380, in the fall of 2005.
The long-range version of the 747X could have an especially bright future,
according to Orlowski and other executives.
Seddik Belyamani, Boeing's executive vice president of sales, points out the
wide gap in capacity between the 555-passenger A380 and the next largest
Airbus jet, which will be the new 380-passenger A340-600. Boeing's 777
seats about 350 passengers.
"Never, in the history of aviation, have airlines had that much of a seating gap
between planes," he says.
That means, he said, there will continue to be a strong requirement by airlines
for a plane the size of the 425-passenger jumbo.
Boeing market studies forecast that over the next 20 years, the long-range
747X will win "significantly" more orders than the A380 or the 747X Stretch,
Airbus' market studies show there will be much greater demand than Boeing
has predicted for planes the size of the A380.
"Airbus is going in and getting some big orders (for the A380), and that's
disappointing," Orlowski said. "But it's a small part of the market. We believe
our strategy is true and we believe it will give us predominance."