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Boeing Ups Ante With Radical New Jetliner Design

Aviation: To challenge Airbus Industrie, the firm is shifting focus to a mid-size aircraft that will fly near the speed of sound.

March 30, 2001|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ratcheting up the competition between two of the world's largest airplane makers, Boeing Co. said Thursday that it is developing a commercial jet with a radical new design that would fly faster, higher and farther than current airliners.

In a move to counter archrival Airbus Industrie, Boeing officials said the company was scaling back development of its 747X super-jumbo jet and refocusing efforts to producing a new mid-size commercial airplane that could fly near the speed of sound.

The decision effectively means that Boeing is conceding the large-jet market it has dominated for three decades with the venerable 747 to Airbus' new 555-seat A-380 super-jumbo jet.

The 747X, a stretched version of the 420-seat 747, was intended to compete with the A-380, but it has had no takers. Airbus, meanwhile, has garnered 62 orders for its jet, which is expected to begin flying in 2006.

Some analysts described the announcement of Boeing's new plane Thursday as a brilliant marketing move that masked disappointment over the 747X while dealing a counterpunch to Airbus, which does not have an answer to the proposed jet.

"If I had to devise a response [to the A-380] this would be it," said Richard L. Aboulafia, director of aviation consulting for Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group. "It's almost too perfect. It scares the airlines from buying another A-380."

The Boeing plane could be more attractive to airlines seeking to siphon first-class travelers. But Aboulafia, along with aviation analysts and airline officials, questioned whether Boeing could launch a plane that would fly higher and faster without a corresponding increase in operating costs.

"Fuel costs increase geometrically when you get close to Mach 1," Aboulafia said, referring to the speed of sound, or about 750 mph. Most commercial airplanes fly at Mach .80 to Mach .85.

Boeing said that with advances in technology and aerodynamics, its "sonic cruiser" would be able to fly at about Mach .95, or 20% faster than current commercial jets. It would also be able to fly at a higher altitude and farther than the existing fleet. The Boeing plane would fly at 40,000 feet versus about 35,000 feet for current jetliners and have a range of 10,000 miles.

At the faster speed, a traveler could save about an hour for every 3,000 miles flown, Boeing said. Although no specific configuration has been determined, Boeing officials said the plane would seat between 175 and 250 passengers and could begin flying by 2006 or 2007.

"We have developed a set of airplane technologies, design and manufacturing techniques that we believe we can put together to give the airlines a new level of speed, new level of comfort and new level of range," said Alan Mulally, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "This new airplane could change the way the world flies as dramatically as did the introduction of the Jet Age."

The industry has been abuzz with reports of the new plane. Aircraft buyers were more cautious about evaluating the plane, saying there was still too little information to make an assessment.

"It sounds intriguing but we really need to reserve judgment until we see the performance capabilities and pricing of the aircraft," said John L. Plueger, president of Century City-based International Lease Finance Corp., the world's largest commercial jet leasing firm.

Indeed, in announcing the new plane, Boeing cautioned that the "new jet is still in the early phases of development and may change as Boeing works with its customers to understand their requirements." As a development jet, Boeing is not yet offering it for sale.

Nevertheless, Airbus officials quickly dismissed the new plane, equating it to the supersonic Concorde, which has not been profitable and has been mainly reserved for first-class passengers who pay a premium to cover the high operating costs.

Airbus officials said the company had looked at developing such a plane but was dissuaded by the high cost. The plane would burn 40% more fuel and have significantly higher operating costs per seat, he said.

"There is a lot of question about the viability of a plane like that," said David Venz, an Airbus spokesman.

"In order to fly faster, it will have to burn an awful lot more fuel. The question is: Will a passenger pay a premium to save 45 minutes on a five-hour trip?"

Boeing shares rose 95 cents to $55.95 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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