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Boeing in Superjumbo Competition

May 22, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) _ As Airbus Industrie continues to loudly promote its A3XX superjumbo jet to airlines, Boeing Co. is going to the same customers to pitch a larger version of the 747-400 that company officials say is cheaper and easier to integrate into airlines’ plans.

It’s yet another move in the long-standing, multibillion-dollar chess game between the two commercial aerospace giants. But while the two have been moving in and out of stalemate for years, Airbus’ recent agreements with two major airlines may have changed the game for good.

``This is really a defining moment for the whole idea of a superjumbo jet,″ said Byron Callan, an analyst with Merrill Lynch. ``It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ’when.‴

The A3XX is a completely new, massive airplane that Toulouse, France-based Airbus is touting as the answer for travel between major airport hubs. The first version of the double-decker plane would seat up to 555 people with a range of 8,700 miles, about the same as the 416-passenger 747-400.

The $12 billion project has been repeatedly postponed, however. And despite recent commitments from Singapore Airlines and Emirates Airlines to become the A3XX’s first customers, the decision to launch the program, expected at an Airbus board meeting last Friday, was delayed for the fifth time in the program’s decade-long history.

``Any delays at this point are nearly immaterial,″ said Mark Luginbill, a spokesman for Airbus. ``This project is well on its way.″

Boeing isn’t taking any chances. Earlier this month, Boeing chairman Phil Condit sent letters to major airlines touting a ``stretch″ version of the 747-400. This version would add about 100 seats to the 747 by adding 31 1/2 feet to the overall length of the aircraft.

Boeing introduced the 747 in 1969, and 20 years later brought out the most recent model, the extensively redesigned 747-400. In all, Boeing has delivered more than 1,235 of the planes, the largest passenger jet now in service.

Although Boeing would have to re-engineer the wing structure and landing gear to accommodate the extra length and weight of a stretched version, modifying an existing, proven aircraft is far easier than building a new plane from scratch. Boeing has previously said a stretch 747 could be delivered well before Airbus’ 2005 target date, and for far less _ between $2 billion and $3 billion.

Boeing engineers spent more than a year in the mid-1990s studying whether the company should build its own all-new superjumbo, but the plan was dropped in 1997 when Boeing determined the plane would be too expensive. Boeing and Airbus also disagree on the demand for a superjumbo _ Airbus pegs it at about 1,500 aircraft, while Boeing thinks only about 360 will be needed over the next 20 years.

Boeing subsequently drew up plans for the stretch 747. While the formal go-ahead for that model hasn’t been given, Boeing hauls out the proposal whenever talk about the A3XX heats up.

``I think customer interest is very strong,″ said Boeing spokesman Randy Harrison. ``The 747 stretch is a much safer, much more practical investment and we want to make sure our customers have all the information they need before they make any purchasing decisions.″

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