Boeing announced yesterday it is offering airline customers a freighter version of its most modern wide-body jet, the 777.
Boeing managers said they are talking with several prospective customers. The new cargo jet is expected to launch with initial orders within a few months and to enter service in four years.
The news is a boost to the Everett plant, where the 777 provides 60 percent of current production work.
The freighter is expected to sell well and should help keep the production line at capacity toward the end of the decade.
Introducing a 777 freighter is aimed at preserving Boeing's considerable lead in the world's air-cargo market — fully half of which is serviced by the aging 747 jumbo freighter — against a new threat from Airbus' superjumbo A380.
The A380, due to have its first flight next year, is set to overtake the 747 as the world's largest jet. It will launch with a freighter version, the A380-F, as well as a passenger version. FedEx has ordered 10 A380-Fs, and Emirates SkyCargo two more.
With the A380 close to its debut, Airbus spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn dismissed the 777 freighter as "still a paper airplane."
But air-cargo operators have long requested a freighter version of the efficient twin-engine 777, and analysts see it as a formidable new competitor.
"Long term, we believe the 777 will win (in the air-freight market)," said Ned Laird, managing director of the Air Cargo Management Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm that does market research for Boeing and Airbus. "The 777 is the all-time most efficient wide-body airplane ever built."
In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Lars Andersen, Boeing's 777 derivative-program manager, claimed the new cargo jet would beat all current and pending freighters in terms of range and operating costs.
"The 777 freighter will fly further than any other freighter," Andersen said. "It has lower trip costs than any freighter, including the A380."
That claim is based on a complicated comparison twisted Boeing's way.
The 777 freighter will fly 5,200 nautical miles with a full payload of 101 metric tons. This compares with the 747-400ERF, which can fly 5,000 miles carrying 113 tons. But Airbus claims the A380-F will fly 5,600 miles carrying 150 tons.
Andersen said the Airbus super-jumbo, because of its particular configuration, has to be less densely packed than Boeing cargo jets. A 777 freighter packed to a similar density, and therefore lighter, would have extra range that would exceed 5,600 miles, he said.
The new jet will be a derivative of the forthcoming 777-200LR, without passenger windows and with a 10-foot high, side cargo door. The -200LR is to enter service in 2006 and will surpass the Airbus A340-500 as the longest-range airplane in the world.
Boeing is promoting the 777 freighter as a complement to the larger 747 freighter, with operators easily able to transfer cargo from one to the other through matching side cargo doors.
Although the new freighter could potentially undermine sales of the 747 freighter after 2007, Andersen said he doesn't foresee a negative impact.
Toward the end of the decade, he said, Boeing would be looking at a freighter version of a new 747 derivative, the 747 Advanced — a stretch version with 7E7 engines — that would maintain Boeing's claim to the largest-size freighter market.
However, the 747 Advanced is still very much a theoretical airplane. Development can come only after the 7E7 is in service, beginning in 2008.
Andersen said Boeing's move to offer the 777 freighter comes in response to an upswing in the world economy.
The company forecasts the world air-cargo fleet will more than double in the next 20 years, from about 450 aircraft today to more than 1,000. Asia is expected to be the engine for that increase, with projected annual average growth of 8.5 percent.
The total 777 order backlog stands at 148, not counting 29 long-range 777 orders announced this year but not yet officially finalized by Singapore Air, Thai Airways and Etihad, of the United Arab Emirates. The backlog for comparable-size Airbus jets is 151.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com