By Chris Stetkiewicz
SEATTLE, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Despite losing the first several rounds in the fight to sell a new generation of superjumbo jets, Boeing Co.
Rival Airbus Industrie 1/8ARBU.UL 3/8's 555-seat double-decker A380 has grabbed headlines, and 60 launch orders, while Boeing has tinkered with its more modest plan to add about 100 seats and more range to its 416-seat 747-400.
After a recent customer symposium helped Boeing refine its design, the 747X plans are nearly complete and officials at the Seattle-based aerospace giant are more convinced than ever that they can find enough customers to build it.
"The airplane is really very firm," 747X program manager Walter Gillette said in an interview on Thursday. "The engine sizing is firm, from both engine companies, thrust requirements are firm, the wing is firm. We are doing the last wind tunnel tests now."
Gillette and 747 program general manager Walter Orlowski did not say how many orders it would take to launch the plane, adding that the board of directors had not set a minimum. But they still expect to launch it this year as part of a remarkably specific schedule.
"We have a program plan that says first flight will be on Dec. 17, 2004. That's the 101st anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. It's a Friday," said Gillette at Boeing's Everett, Wash., wide-body jet assembly plant.
Government certification comes on Aug. 1, 2005, with the first delivery in September 2005, according to the plan.
"We are following that plan, following every step of it and we will pick up our launch customers along the way," Gillette said.
A380 NO QUANTUM LEAP
Boeing officials were "disappointed" to see seven customers sign up for 60 A380s before the sale of even one 747X. But many of those buyers were drawn to the colossal size of the Airbus jet, while most jumbo operators will need jets seating 400 to 500 passengers, Gillette said.
"Airbus's airplane is really sized for getting bigger. The 747X has a 7,000-square feet area wing. The A380 has a 9,000 square-foot area wing. So the A380 really wants to start at its current size and go up. (Airbus) are betting the market is going to be large for a very large airplane," Gillette said.
Other than the size, the A380 offers no major technological advance over the 747X, Orlowski said, countering remarks on Thursday by FedEx Corp.
"On the wing technology, engine technology, systems technology, flight qualities -- there is no technological improvement that we couldn't make or haven't made," Orlowski said.
"It (A380) is a leapfrog in size, but I think it ends right there. The fuel burn per seat is just about the same. I don't know of any piece of technology that Airbus has on the A380 that is a leapfrog," Orlowski added.
ALL-NEW WING, ENGINES, LANDING GEAR
The 747X will sport an all-new wing and landing gear plus one of two new engine models -- the Rolls-Royce Plc.
Still, without a launch customer, Boeing's words ring hollow and its hopes of selling hundreds of 747Xs at $200 million apiece seem optimistic, industry experts have said.
Why not simply skip the program and deliver an all-new superjumbo 10 or 20 years from now, when the demand is expected to be stronger, analysts have asked.
"As long as the basic concept of the airplane is sound, it's usually better to continue to enhance it, grow its capability, add new technologies that provide value, than it is to take a risk on an all-new one," Gillette said.
So barring an improbable breakthrough in propulsion technology, the $4 billion 747X project looks far safer than the $10.7 billion A380, Boeing argues.
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