By JAMES WALLACE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
As it closes in on what could be a record year for jetliner orders, The Boeing Co. could soon land its first 787 deal with one of the aircraft leasing giants.
Martin Bentrott, vice president of sales, marketing and in-service support for the 787 program, would not identify the customer, but it is likely International Lease Finance Corp., whose chairman and founder, Steven Hazy, has said he is talking with Boeing about the 787.
"We anticipate reaching closure (on the deal) within the next month or two," Bentrott said.
Although press reports continue to say that Boeing has failed to woo a leasing company with its 787, Bentrott disclosed that Boeing has such an order -- but just has not advertised it.
For a couple months, Boeing has carried on its order-and-delivery Web site an order from an unidentified customer for six 787s. That order is from a leasing company, Bentrott said, although he declined to identify the customer.
It is apparently one that is not too well known.
"Some will probably be surprised when they find out who it is," he said.
In a wide-ranging interview, Bentrott also said that Boeing's 787 sales team is now focused on signing firm contracts with the remaining customers who have announced commitments for the 787. Those 787 orders cannot be officially counted until a firm deal is signed.
"We are trying to get all those signed up this year," he said.
So far, Boeing has announced 256 orders or commitments for the 787 from 21 customers. Of those, 143 are firm orders, with 87 signed this year. "This year is going to be phenomenal (for 787 sales)," Bentrott said.
The final 787 tally for 2005 will help Boeing beat Airbus for the first time since 2000 in total jetliner sales.
Through mid-August, Boeing had 571 gross orders, or 549 net orders. The net orders reflect cancellations. Boeing lost a number of orders for its 717 earlier this year after announcing that the former McDonnell Douglas program would end once the remaining backlog is built.
Depending on what happens the rest of the year, Boeing not only appears likely to end up with significantly more orders than Airbus for 2005, but could set a sales record. The current record for Boeing or Airbus was established in 1996, when Boeing had 670 gross orders (the figure does not include McDonnell Douglas planes.)
Bentrott acknowledged that with so many orders for the 787 coming this year, 2006 will be slower.
"Orders for the 787 next year should be good, just perhaps not to the same extreme as this year," he said.
For one thing, delivery positions -- when airlines can take delivery of a 787 after they place a firm order -- are filled out through 2010. All Nippon Airways of Japan gets the first 787 in the first half of 2008.
"The real question is, with fuel prices continuing to be a pressure point, will that encourage airlines to be a little more proactive in terms of thinking longer term in making decisions" about ordering new jets, Bentrott said. "With us sold out through 2010, they will need to be thinking about delivery positions or pretty soon we will be sold out through 2011 and 2012."
Boeing is holding some delivery positions for a few of the big-name airlines and key customers that could announce commitments or firm orders for the 787 this year or in early 2006.
"There are some strategic airlines that we are protecting delivery positions for," Bentrott acknowledged. "We know how important they will be to the program. We don't want them to be without a delivery position at the time they are making a decision."
These airlines include Singapore Airlines, Qantas and British Airways. All three have said they are considering the 787 but want to look at the A350, a competing Airbus jet. Airbus has said it expects to launch development of the A350 next month. It would enter service in 2010, two years after the 787.
Singapore Airlines' big plans. In addition to the 787, Singapore Airlines has also asked Boeing for proposals on its 777-200LR as well as the 747 Advanced. It has requested proposals from Airbus for the A350, the A340-500 and more A380s.
Singapore Airlines will get the first A380 delivered by Airbus, in late 2006. But the plane will be at least six months late. That has upset Singapore executives, and Boeing sees an opportunity with its 747 Advanced. It would use the fuel-efficient engines being developed for the 787.
Boeing is expected to seek approval from its board later this year to develop the 747 Advanced as a freighter and passenger plane, once it has received sufficient customer commitments. The passenger version would have about 35 more seats than the 416-seat 747-400 now in service.
If Boeing could turn trend-setting Singapore Airlines into a customer for the passenger version of its 747 Advanced, it would send message throughout the industry that Boeing's flagship jumbo is far from dead, despite the arrival of the bigger and newer A380.
Singapore Airlines is expected to make a decision on the Boeing or Airbus planes late this year or in early 2006.