In a decision sure to be greeted with relief at Boeing's Everett plant, the company was poised late Monday night to move ahead with plans...

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In a decision sure to be greeted with relief at Boeing’s Everett plant, the company announced late Monday it would move ahead with plans for a new version of its iconic 747 jumbo jet, the 747 Advanced, now renamed the 747-8.


Boeing got its second launch customer for a cargo version of the new 747 derivative Monday, assuring an extended life for the plane that entered service in 1970.


Without a go-ahead for the 747-8 version, the production line in Everett faced closure within a few years because Boeing had a 747 backlog of only 42 jets.


Both launch customers are cargo airlines. Boeing had hoped to get an order for the passenger version of the jet to launch the program, so beginning with only cargo customers is something of a surprise. Plans for the passenger version will proceed.


Nippon Cargo Airlines (NCA) will take eight of the new jets with options for six more. NCA, with a fleet of 13 older 747s, is owned by Nippon Yusen KK, Japan’s largest marine shipping line. Boeing already had one announced customer, Cargolux, an air-freight company based in Luxembourg that ordered 10 of the new jets plus options for 10 more. The 18 firm orders together are valued at approximately $5 billion.


The first 747-8 is scheduled for delivery in October 2008, according to internal company documents.


Though Boeing doesn’t disclose the number of employees working on specific programs, company documents indicate the Everett plant has thousands of engineers and manufacturing support staff in addition to about 1,000 people working directly on day-to-day 747 production.


Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet



Launched: April 1966

First flight: February 1969


Entered service: January 1970


Delivered to date: 1,364


Unfilled orders: 42


747-400 list price: $205 million to $236 million


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


Orders in 2005: 26 airplanes, all freighter versions, including eight for UPS


Deliveries in 2005: 11 airplanes, including just two passenger jets


Source: Boeing


The launch decision was expected, though Boeing had repeatedly retreated from previous plans to update the airplane.


In the mid-1990s, Boeing planned two 747 derivatives that would have been nearly-new airplanes with 777 systems, expensive to develop. The idea was scrapped when the Asian financial crisis temporarily depressed the market.


Meanwhile, Airbus pushed ahead with the A380 superjumbo, which eclipsed the 747 as the largest airliner in the world.


In 1999, Boeing proposed the 747X family, a cheaper option that included a stretch version 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 again backed away.


After being criticized for years for lack of investment in the future, Boeing has a full plate of major development programs, with the 787 in detailed design phase, the new ultra-long-range 777-200LR in flight test and now a new version of the 747 to work on.


The 747-8, the third and cheapest 747 fix yet, uses the super-efficient 787 engines to extend the jumbo’s life. It will be powered by four modified versions of the General Electric 787 engines, making it quieter, increasing its fuel efficiency and extending its range to 8,000 nautical miles.


The new derivative will have raked composite wing tips and other small aerodynamic changes to the wing to increase performance.


The fuselage on the cargo version will be lengthened with inserts of 160 inches just in front of the wing and 60 inches just behind it, a total stretch of 18 feet, 4 inches. The freighter version will carry a payload of 147 tons, with a range of 4,470 nautical miles.


The passenger version of the new jet will also attempt to update the dowdy image of the jumbo jet’s interior and rival the appeal of the Airbus A380 with a spacious entryway and new interior design, including mood lighting and luxury “sky suites” with sleeping bunks for first-class passengers. It will be slightly shorter than the cargo version, a 10-foot stretch.


The 747-8 is aimed at a market slot halfway between the Boeing 777-300ER size, with 365 seats, and the Airbus A380 superjumbo, with 550 seats.


The passenger version of the 747-8 will seat 450 passengers, 34 more than the current 747-400.


There hasn’t been an order for the passenger version of the existing 747 since China Airlines ordered four in November 2002.


However, Boeing is negotiating with several Asian airlines to take the new 747-8 passenger model.


Singapore Airlines is considering buying nine, Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong may take six, China Airlines of Taiwan may buy six more, and Qantas of Australia is looking at an order of as many as 20.


Those airlines are weighing the new 747 against the A380 superjumbo, and Airbus’ six-month delay in delivering that plane has undoubtedly helped Boeing. Every 747-8 that is sold probably means one less superjumbo sale for Airbus.


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