Boeing Co. is pitching its new 7E7 commercial jet as a dream aircraft for both passengers and airlines.
Enlarged windows will offer wide views of the horizon. Improved cabin pressurization will minimize dry eyes and skin. Travelers will have more space to cram their carry-ons into the overhead bins. Boeing promises airlines that they will appreciate the innovations in design and technology that will reduce operating costs when the jet begins commercial flights in 2008.
But the real measure of the Dreamliner will be whether it can revive the sagging reputation and fortunes of the world's once-dominant airplane maker, industry analysts say.
"We went all over the planet to understand what's wrong with the travel experience," said Klaus Brauer, director of Boeing passenger satisfaction and revenue. "If you can make people more comfortable without increasing airlines' cost, it's the holy grail."
The 7E7 is Boeing's bet on the future of air travel. The aircraft, which will seat at most 289 passengers, is aimed at carriers flying point-to-point international flights. Boeing says its research indicates that mid-size aircraft with direct service will dominate the new-aircraft market in the next two decades. Its vision contrasts sharply with that of its arch rival Airbus SAS, now the leading commercial jet maker. Fueling a public sparring match, Airbus has been touting its development of the world's largest passenger jet, the 555-seat A380. The European company is betting that airlines will want enormous planes for long-haul flights to major-city hubs.
"I wish them the best of luck," said Alan R. Mulally, chief executive of Boeing's commercial airplane division. "I like our chances."
Boeing could use some luck of its own after a decade of miscues and controversy. The 7E7 is the first new plane from the company since 1990, when it launched the 777. Boeing stumbled badly in the 1990s when it spent millions of dollars developing the Sonic Cruiser and an extended 747 -- two aircraft that attracted so little customer interest that production plans were scrapped.
Airbus exploited the setbacks, moving aggressively onto Boeing's turf. The company, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., has piled up orders from United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, American Airlines and JetBlue Airways, last year displacing Boeing as the top commercial airplane manufacturer. Airbus is two years ahead of Boeing in developing its new super-jumbo jet, which will begin carrying passengers in 2006. It has already taken orders for 129 of the A380s, which will have a staircase connecting the two floors of passenger cabins and cocktail lounges.
To offset its languishing commercial business, Boeing has vigorously sought contracts with the military. Last year, its defense operations accounted for 54 percent of the company's sales, up from 46 percent in 2002, but the growth has not been without its own embarrassments. The company's chief financial officer was fired in November and its chief executive resigned in December in a scandal related to a Boeing deal to lease and sell refueling tankers to the Air Force. Boeing's proposal, valued at $23.5 billion, was deferred Tuesday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to allow the Pentagon to assess other options.
The 7E7 stands as one of the bright spots on the Boeing horizon. Last month, the company announced its first order for 50 planes from Tokyo-based All Nippon Airways. Based on the list price, the contract was worth $6 billion, but the final price is expected to be deeply discounted. Still, the order was enough for Boeing to officially announce the launch of the 7E7, which will cost $7 billion to $10 billion to develop.
"We've never seen such interest in an airplane" in all of Boeing's history, Mulally said, adding that the company is considering proposals for 400 planes from an undisclosed number of airlines. "We're getting great interest from around the world." Although it is hard to predict, some analysts say Boeing will need to sell at least 300 of the planes for the 7E7 program to break even.
Airbus executives were quick to cast doubt on Boeing's claims of enthusiasm for the plane, suggesting a relationship between the All Nippon order and Boeing's plan to build 35 percent of the aircraft's parts in Japan. "We all know why" All Nippon was the first order, said Airbus North America Holdings Inc. chief executive Henri Courpron. "How much Japanese content is on the 7E7?"
In some ways, the 7E7 breaks little new ground: It won't fly farther or faster than existing passenger planes. It is the same size as the 767, which the new aircraft will replace.
The first plane in the Dreamliner line, the 7E7-8, will seat 217 passengers in three class sections and fly 14-hour flights comparable to service between Newark and Rio de Janeiro or San Francisco and Milan. The double-aisle plane can be configured with three or four seats in the middle and three next to each window.
The second model, the 7E7-3, will carry 289 in two-class seating for shorter coast-to-coast or transatlantic flights. The third in the line, the 7E7-9, will be an elongated version of the first plane, with seating for 257.
What's different about the plane is the cost savings built into the design. Boeing says the Dreamliner will be one of the most profitable planes for airlines to fly because it will reduce operating costs by 10 percent. The savings will come largely from the use of lightweight, super-hard synthetic materials known as composites in the construction of the plane. Composites will account for half of the 7E7, sharply reducing the aircraft's weight and cutting fuel costs by 20 percent, according to Boeing. The material does not corrode the way metal does, which helps to trim the airlines' maintenance costs, Boeing says.
T. Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America, said he is skeptical of Boeing's claims that the 7E7 will reduce fuel costs by 20 percent. But he said Airbus also is looking to add more lightweight composite materials on its planes -- an innovation that both Airbus and Boeing claim to have pioneered in the commercial aviation industry.
"I don't believe Boeing will be able to deliver on their promise," McArtor said.
The belly of the 7E7 has more room for cargo along with baggage, providing a potential boost in shipping revenue for the airlines. Boeing estimates that the 7E7 will offer a 40 percent increase in cargo revenue from today's levels.
"It's [a] potentially fantastic" plan, said Richard L. Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at research firm Teal Group Corp. "This represents the future of air transport. There will be a place for the [Airbus] A380, but you haven't even seen the inevitable arrival of the low-cost international carrier."