Who builds a better widebody?

If you listen to Boeing, people who fly aboard the 777 instead of a competing jet from Airbus Industrie enjoy more elbow room, more space to stow their bags, fewer cancellations and quicker flights.

"It is just a fantastic, fantastic airplane," said Bruce Nicoletti, one of about a dozen executives at Boeing who lead commercial-aircraft sales pitches. "The 777 is a better product" than the A330 or the A340.

Hogwash, says Airbus. The 777's fuselage may be bigger, but it also has five center-row coach seats instead of Airbus's four. Airbus derisively calls that arrangement the 777's "double excuse me" seating.

Airbus also points out that the A330 and A340 have outsold the 777 in the past decade. Not so, says Boeing, which contends that orders for the 777 are outpacing the A330/A340 2 to 1.

There's a reason for the heated battle of words by the world's two remaining large commercial jet makers: The widebody contest between the 777 and the A330/A340 promises Boeing and Airbus some of their fattest returns.

Airbus, which is owned by companies in four European nations, doesn't have a jumbo jet to take on Boeing's 747. The 737 and the A320 family of jets are duking it out in the single-aisle plane market. But it's a high-volume, low-margin business.

That leaves large long-range planes such as the 777 and the A330/A340 in a fertile niche for profits. In fact, only five years after it first flew passengers, the 777 may be Boeing's biggest money maker.

Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research, estimates the 777 may account for $400 million in Boeing's pretax earnings this year, assuming the company has fully recouped the plane's development costs. That's $50 million more than Nisbet's estimate for the 747, the most profitable of the six Boeing family models in production. The 777 has made Boeing so much money partly because the company sells more of it than any jetliner except the prolific 737. The Seattle aerospace company delivered 83 777s last year, compared with 320 737s.

Nisbet also estimates that Boeing is still losing money on the 737s, largely because the company is still writing off expenses stemming from a disastrous production-line foul-up three years ago.

Boeing would not say how much money it made last year on individual models.

Boeing conceived the 777 a decade ago to siphon business away from Airbus and McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing bought in 1997, said Lars Andersen, a former 777 chief project engineer. The two Boeing rivals offered the only jets that could carry nearly 300 passengers from the East and West coasts to Europe or across the Pacific.

Boeing's 767, introduced in 1982, could fly almost the same range but carried only 200 people. Thus the A330-300, A340-300 and the MD-11 had the field to themselves, said Andersen, who now manages the longer-range 777 program.

Boeing considered boosting the 767's seating capacity. But it decided the changes needed were too great. So Boeing's newest airplane was born.

The 777 was the first jetliner to be designed on computer without a full-sized mockup. It also was the first Boeing jetliner to fully incorporate ideas from customers. That was a philosophy promoted by Phil Condit, who headed the 777 program before he ascended to Boeing's top job as chairman and chief executive, and was carried on by Alan Mulally, president of Boeing's Commercial Airplane Group, who took over the 777 program from Condit.

Gordon McKinzie, manager of new-aircraft development for United Airlines, said Boeing solicited ideas from customers in the past, but never to the extent it did with the 777.

"When you buy a car, you don't go to Detroit and tell them how to design it," McKinzie said.

But as the 777's launch customer, the nation's largest carrier "basically got everything that was important to us as the first guy in line," McKinzie said.

Among United's demands: reading-light bulbs that could be changed by flight attendants. That may sound simple, but Boeing had always designed the bulb's housing so that only a mechanic could open it, McKinzie said.

United also asked for extra-large luggage bins that could accommodate overstuffed rolling bags that passengers increasingly were bringing on board. The stow bins are designed to pivot down and forward so that people wouldn't have to reach in to retrieve their bags.

The 777's interior was so well received by airlines and passengers that Boeing is replicating it on the 767. The company may do the same with the 747 as well, Andersen said.

Since Boeing first began offering the 777 for sale in October 1990, the company has received orders for 460 jets. Andersen said much of that business would have gone to Airbus.

"We sold 460 planes that we couldn't have sold otherwise," Andersen said.

Five years ago this week - June 7, 1995 - United flew the first passenger flight on a 777 with an eight-hour trip from London to Washington, D.C. The carrier now has 42 777s, many of which are used on trans-Atlantic flights from the eastern United States.

Puget Sound-area travelers don't often get to climb aboard the 777. Four of the five biggest carriers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, including Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, do not fly 777s. United operates three daily 777 flights out of Seattle, one a nonstop to Tokyo and two to its hub in Denver.

"I think it's the most comfortable airplane we've got," McKinzie said.

McKinzie said passengers like the 777's spacious feeling, large windows, plentiful lavatories (11) and the 6-foot-4-inch clearance beneath the center-row baggage bins.

In the time the 777 has been available for sale, Boeing says customers have chosen it more than 1 1/2 times as often as the competing Airbus models: 460 vs. 280. Airbus counters that the A330/A340 have won just more than half of the orders against the 777. Boeing says Airbus is counting orders for smaller A330s and A340s that compete with its 767 rather than the 777.

Alan Pardoe, product manager for A330/A340 in Toulouse, France, said Airbus' widebodies offer airlines "a coherent family of airplanes" with common cockpits and cabins that keep down training and maintenance costs.

Pardoe said the A330/A340's 2-4-2 seating configuration in coach class boasts fewer center seats than the 777. Boeing gives 777 customers the option of seating nine or 10 passengers abreast, including 2-5-2, 3-3-3, 3-4-3 and 3-4-2.

"Most of the flying public prefer a window seat or an aisle seat," Pardoe said.

Klause Brauer, Boeing's seating-configuration guru, says according to his research, an empty next seat - not a window or aisle - is what most determines comfort for passengers.

Nicoletti, the Boeing marketing executive, contends the only way Airbus can compete against the 777s performance and comfort is by knocking off prices for the A330/A340.

Mary Anne Greczyn, an Airbus spokeswoman, said the company doesn't make money-losing sales. As to Nicoletti's charge, Greczyn retorts: "They say that only after they've lost a deal."

The rivalry for long-range planes is only going to intensify. In February, Boeing began production on two ultra-long-range versions of the 777: the -200X and the -300X.

The 777-200X will be the world's longest-range plane. It could go farther without refueling than any other aircraft. Its range would stretch more than 10,000 miles, or enough to reach Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from Los Angeles.

Boeing expects the extended range to open up new city pairs for airlines, enabling them, for instance, to fly nonstop from the United States to China's interior.

Airbus, too, is filling out its offering with the launch of two new planes, the 380-seat A340-600 and the 313-seat A340-500. With the former, Airbus is aiming to replace older 747s and provide an alternative to the 747-400, the world's largest plane.

The A340-500 will be the European company's longest-range aircraft, second only to the upcoming 777-200X.

Looming over all this is the potential launch of the A3XX, a super-jumbo plane that would seat 600 people or more and could topple the 747's monopoly. Boeing is contemplating stretching the 416-seat 747 to carry 500 passengers.

Meanwhile, Boeing's Andersen said the company clearly has a winner with the 777.

"It's an airplane that sells itself," he said.

Kyung Song's phone: 206-464-2423. E-mail: ksong@seattletimes.com.

--------------------------- Detailing the 777

The 777 is one of six commercial-airplane models in production at Boeing. The 777 is built in Everett.

Market: 460 orders from 31 customers; 283 planes have been delivered.

Variants: 777-200, -300 and -200ER (extended range). At 242 feet, 4 inches, the 777-300 is the world's longest airliner. In February, Boeing launched two longer-range versions, the 777-300X and the 777-200X. The latter can carry 301 passengers more than 10,000 miles, or nonstop from Los Angeles to Singapore or Johannesburg.

Speed: The 777 has a speed of Mach 0.84, or 84 percent as fast as the speed of sound. It is Boeing's second fastest plane; only the 747 jumbo jet flies faster.

Longest route: Guanzhou, China, to Los Angeles

Most-frequent service: Tie. Sapporo, Japan to Tokyo and Fukuoka, Japan to Tokyo. 150 weekly flights.

List price: 777-200, $137 million to $154 million; 777-200ER, $144 million to $164 million;777-300, $160.5 million to $184.5 million

Employees: About 1,700 of 28,000 Boeing workers in Everett work on the 777 production line.

Monthly production rate: Four

Source: Boein.