Boeing Co. is assessing whether to prolong the life of the 747 -- in a modified, enlarged version -- to compete with Airbus SAS's new super-jumbo A380, a company executive said yesterday.
If the company fails to find one or two well-established customers for the new version by summer, it will begin plans to cease production of the signature aircraft.
The 747 Advanced, as the new model is called, would seat 400 to 500 passengers and would incorporate more fuel-efficient engines and redesigned wings constructed of lightweight materials, Randy Baseler, Boeing's vice president of marketing, told a group of reporters at the company's Rosslyn office yesterday.
Orders for the 747 have slipped since Airbus announced plans to build its 555-seat A380 -- the first large aircraft to compete with the 747 since its debut 35 years ago. Boeing had 15 orders last year and 19 in 2003, compared with 53 orders in 1998, according to Teal Group, an industry consulting firm.
The plane could be delivered by 2009, a year after another new Boeing aircraft, the twin-aisle 787 Dreamliner, comes off the line.
"Airlines have told us we have to make a decision" whether to build the new version or not, Baseler said. Boeing is asking, "Is it an airplane that airlines will continue to buy over the next 20 years?" he said.
If Boeing decides the answer is yes, then it will have to explain what appears to be a shift in strategy. For years, it has claimed that Airbus's ambitious sales projections for a giant plane were out of sync with the market and that the A380 could not be successful.
"Haven't they been asserting there's not a market for this plane?" said Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell.
Airbus has 139 orders for the A380, which was publicly unveiled last month at company headquarters in Toulouse, France, and is scheduled for delivery in 2006.
The two firms have been engaged in a cutthroat competition for aircraft sales in recent years. The rivalry reached a head last fall when the United States charged that Europe gave Airbus unfair subsidies, aiding the company's launch of a family of new aircraft, including the A380. The United States contended that Boeing does not receive such government aid.
Baseler said yesterday that the 747 Advanced would serve a slightly different market than Airbus's new plane. Its 450 seats would put the plane between the A380, with its 550-plus seats, and Boeing's own 777, with 365 seats. Boeing's existing 747-400 has room for 419 passengers.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with Teal Group, said Boeing should move ahead with the 747 Advanced, if only to offer customers competitive aircraft. "It seems poorly thought out" to kill the 747, Aboulafia said. "There's no reason to not keep the line alive as pricing pressure on the A380. The 747 is a superb plane," he said.