Beginning with a high-level review today in Seattle, company officials are weighing whether to offer a new, bigger version of the 35-year-old best-seller.

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Boeing’s iconic airplane, the 747 jumbo jet, is at a crucial turning point.

Beginning with a high-level review today in Seattle, company officials are weighing whether to offer a new, bigger version of the 35-year-old best-seller.

If Boeing Commercial Airplanes gets the thumbs up to begin offering the 747 Advanced for sale, as observers believe is likely, the plane could get a fresh lease on life despite the debut of Airbus’ even bigger A380.

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But if the company should decide to back away at the last moment from a new 747 derivative — as it has done on two previous occasions — then, according to an internal document obtained by The Seattle Times, 747 production in Everett could end as early as late summer 2006.

Boeing has for the past several months been gauging interest in the airplane from its airline customers. According to Boeing spokesman John Dern, Boeing Chief Executive Harry Stonecipher is personally involved.

Yet prospective customers are in turn awaiting a positive decision by Boeing — a sign that the jet-maker believes this airplane has a future.

“If Boeing commits to develop the 747 Advanced we’ll be very, very, very interested,” said Marc Schonckert, a spokesman for Luxembourg-based cargo airline Cargolux, a prospective customer. “It’ll be the aircraft that comes closest to our wishes.”


Boeing’s 747
jumbo jet




Launched:
April 1966


First flight:
February 1969


Entered service:
January 1970


Delivered to date:
1,353


Unfilled orders:
32


747-400 list price:
$200 million to $228 million.


Most recent passenger jet order:
Air China in November 2002 ordered four passenger versions of the 747-400


Orders in 2004:
10 freighter versions of the 747-400


Deliveries in 2004:
12 freighters and 3 passenger models

Source: Boeing


According to a Boeing insider, a program review of the 747 Advanced is scheduled for today in Seattle.

This week’s issue of the authoritative trade magazine Flight International reports, without citing a source, that the Boeing board will “this week” decide if the commercial-airplane division can offer the 747 Advanced for sale. Cargolux’s Schonckert also said that he had heard that a decision is imminent.

Boeing declined to provide details of the board schedule or its agenda. The board customarily meets Sunday through Monday.

Indications look good that Boeing will go forward, aiming for delivery by spring 2009. The Flight International report says that Stonecipher will personally back the 747 Advanced before the board.

The 747 Advanced will be a stretched version of the current 747-400 model. A lengthened fuselage will increase capacity to 450 passengers, from 416.

That would position the airplane half-way between the 350-seat 777 and 550-seat A380, a large hole in the market that Boeing is loathe to leave unfilled.

The proposed jet will have raked composite wing tips and other small aerodynamic changes to the wing to increase performance. It will carry four modified versions of the engines designed for the smaller 7E7, making it quieter, increasing fuel efficiency and extending the range to 8,000 nautical miles.

Boeing claims the 747 Advanced would have a cruising speed of 0.86 mach, a tad faster than Airbus’ A380, which will cruise at about 0.85 mach.

After a meeting with about a dozen 747 operators in Hong Kong in October, Boeing marketing vice president Randy Baseler said the company was under pressure to commit to the new plane.

Cargolux is one airline eager for a decision. The 747 freighter is the workhorse of air freight today, and Cargolux has a fleet of 13 with two others on order.

Schonckert said that Cargolux will post record sales and profits for 2004, and “one of the major components of our success is the 747.”

“An advanced freighter would be the ideal plane — a 747 with all the advantages we [already] know with added payload and with better performance,” he said.

Schonckert said that after Boeing indicates its decision, the airline will likely order by year end.

But the fate of the jumbo jet will crucially depend on winning some 747 Advanced orders from passenger jet operators as well as cargo operators.

There hasn’t been an order for the passenger version of the 747-400 since China Airlines ordered four in November 2002. Of the current backlog of just 32 jets, only nine are for the passenger version.

Jeff Peace, manager of the 747 Advanced program, said that Boeing probably cannot sell many more passenger versions of the 747-400. So if it does decide to keep the line alive, Boeing will need some more freighter sales to bridge the gap to the first delivery of the Advanced jet.

In an interview last summer, Baseler admitted that Boeing couldn’t expect the 747 to survive if it did no development of the model. The jet already faces restrictions on night flying at London Heathrow because it doesn’t meet the most stringent noise-reduction requirements.

“If we don’t improve the 747, it goes away,” Baseler said.

Yet Boeing has twice in recent years shelved plans to develop new 747s.

In the mid-1990s, it planned the 747-500 and 747-600, the latter almost as big as the Airbus superjumbo. These were nearly-new airplanes with 777 systems, expensive to develop. The offer was pulled when the Asian financial crisis temporarily depressed the market.

Meanwhile Airbus pushed ahead with the A380 and left Boeing behind.

In 1999, Boeing proposed the 747X family, a more derivative and cheaper option that included a stretch version again almost as big as the A380. But when Singapore Airlines chose the A380 over the 747X, Boeing decided that the market wasn’t big enough for two superjumbos and backed out.

The 747 Advanced, Boeing’s third and cheapest 747 fix yet, emerged from the idea of using the 7E7’s engines to extend the model’s life.

An internal document obtained by The Seattle Times indicates that the company will increase production rate on the current 747 from one a month to one and a half per month in mid-2005, and reduce the rate back down to one per month in 2006.

The same document shows a potential closure of the line in August 2006. That means the 747 could possibly close before the 767, which wouldn’t shut down before the end of 2006 at the earliest, even if Boeing loses the Air Force tanker deal.

The Everett plant has thousands of engineers and manufacturing support staff and about 1,000 people working directly on day-to-day 747 production.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com