Boeing delivered the first freighter version of its 777 jet Thursday to Air France Cargo, and the airline said it is deferring deliveries of two of the five such freighters it has on order as it copes with the global economic downturn.
Air France Cargo picked up the keys Thursday for the first of a new breed of big, modern twin-engine cargo jets: the 777 freighter.
As French airline officials, Boeing executives and guests sipped Champagne and milled around the airplane at Paine Field, the second 777 freighter in the same colors took off on a test flight. It will be delivered next week.
But the celebratory air in Everett was marred by the widening global economic downturn. In an interview, Pierre Vellay, Air France executive vice president for fleet development, said the air-transport business is “in very bad shape.”
He said the airline will defer deliveries of two of the five 777 freighters it has on order.
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According to new figures from the Association of European Airlines, Air France cargo traffic plunged 23 percent in December compared with the previous year.
Vellay also said Air France will push out from 2010 “just a few” deliveries of the passenger version of the jet, the 777-300ER. He characterized this as “a small slide.”
Air France is a key 777 customer. It already flies 51 passenger models of the airplane.
Boeing’s rival won’t escape the squeeze. Vellay said Air France will likely push out “one or two” of its dozen scheduled Airbus A380 superjumbo deliveries.
The 777 freighter gives Boeing a lead over Airbus in a new class of efficient, twin-engine cargo jets, supplementing its dominance of the long-range, large-jet cargo business with the aging, four-engine 747 freighter.
Currently, 317 of the jumbo 747 freighters are in service around the world, and the model will be refreshed with the new 747-8 freighter, set to fly by year end.
Airbus is developing a freighter version of its smaller A330, but that won’t deliver until 2010. And the European plane maker in 2007 suspended development of the freighter version of the bigger superjumbo A380 when FedEx and UPS canceled orders following long production delays.
Tom Crabtree, Boeing’s regional director of cargo marketing, said the company forecast last year a need for about 640 new wide-body freighters in the 20-year period from 2008 to 2027. Boeing expects the 777 and the 747-8 to take much of that market.
Vellay said Air France and 10 other top air-cargo companies started pushing Boeing a decade ago to develop the new 777 cargo airplane to meet their needs.
“We decided what we needed. This is the result,” Vellay said. “The need for us is for an efficient airplane carrying around 100 (metric) tonnes. Not bigger. Not smaller. The combination with 100 tonnes flying around 5,000 nautical miles is the perfect airplane.”
The new model of the 777 first flew in July and completed its flight tests in January. The plane delivered Thursday is the third one off the assembly line.
For the handover ceremony, it was parked outside the Future of Flight museum across Paine Field from the Boeing assembly plant. Guests attended a reception inside the museum.
The 777 freighter, based on the ultralong range 777-200LR, is the world’s largest twin-engine freighter, with the longest range of any cargo plane. It can fly 5,616 miles with a full payload of 113 tons.
The jet is listed at an average price of $256 million, though aviation-valuation firm Avitas estimates the actual purchase price after market discounts at about $149 million.
So far, 12 customers have ordered a total 73 of the new 777 freighters. That includes a firm order from FedEx for 15 of the jets.
In January, FedEx announced its intention to order 15 more, though that sale is not yet closed.
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