The jet maker has been offering the Everett-built airplane to customers since November. The launch means interest is high enough to give the green light to build it.

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Boeing today formally launched the freighter version of its 777 wide-body jet.

The jet maker has been offering the Everett-built airplane — the ultra-long-range 777-200LRF — to customers since November. The launch means interest is high enough to give the green light to build it.

Boeing already has announced two customers for the jet. Last month Air Canada ordered two, and last week Air France announced an order for five, with options for three more.

A person familiar with the details said other airlines have signed preliminary agreements that would bring the total number of commitments to about 50 airplanes.

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Those who have signed, the person said, include Atlas Air, an air-freighter leasing company based in New York; Emirates, the massive carrier out of Dubai; and Eva Airways of Taiwan, a carrier owned by the Evergreen Group shipping company.

“It will be a successful program,” predicted Robert Dahl, project director with Seattle-based consultancy Air Cargo Management Group. He forecasts a market for about 130 of these jets over the next 20 years.

Earlier this month, Dahl’s company listed Cargolux, Etihad, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines as other carriers interested in the new freighter.

The 777-200LRF is based on the long-range passenger version of the jet, with a 10-foot-high side cargo door added and the floor strengthened to support the cargo.

The passenger version made its first flight in March and is undergoing flight tests and certification. It should enter service in 2006.

The freighter version will carry 101 metric tons of cargo a distance of 5,200 nautical miles.

In comparison, the popular freighter version of Boeing’s jumbo jet, the 747-400, can carry 113 metric tons over 4,450 miles.

The 777 will offer twin-engine efficiency and lower fuel consumption than the jumbo jet, and could be the preferred choice on some long-range routes with smaller cargo needs.

The new airplane will have a similar capacity to the MD-11 freighter.

Both FedEx and United Parcel Service, the major express air freight companies, are committed in the next few years to expanding their MD-11 fleets by converting old passenger jets, Dahl said.

Roughly 160 MD-11s worldwide are slated for such conversions.

Once those are done, there’ll be few jets of that size available, and the 777 freighter market should grow.

The air-cargo business worldwide is booming, especially traffic to and from Asia, a region that includes some of Boeing’s best customers for the 777 jetliner and therefore prime candidates for the new plane.

Air Cargo Management Group’s market forecast is based on an assumption that Boeing also will soon launch the new derivative of its jumbo, the 747 Advanced, and that this too will have a freighter version later.

If Boeing failed to launch that airplane — which would be a surprise — the market for the 777 freighter would be even bigger.

The freighter will have a list price similar to the passenger version, which sells for between $202 million and $226 million.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.