Boeing Answers Airbus With Stretched Jumbo

SEATTLE -- As Airbus Industrie continues to loudly promote its A3XX superjumbo jet to airlines, Boeing Co. is going to the same customers to pitch a larger version of the 747-400 that company officials say is cheaper and easier to integrate into airlines' plans.

It's yet another move in the long-standing, multibillion-dollar chess game between the two commercial aerospace giants. But while the two have been moving in and out of stalemate for years, Airbus' recent agreements with two major airlines may have changed the game for good.

"This is really a defining moment for the whole idea of a superjumbo jet," said Byron Callan, an analyst with Merrill Lynch. "It's not a question of 'if,' it's a question of 'when.'"

Now Boeing has shown that it doesn't want to be left out of the running. Earlier this month, Boeing chairman Phil Condit sent letters to major airlines touting a "stretch" version of the 747-400. This version would add about 100 seats to the 747 by adding 9.5 meters to the overall length of the aircraft.

Boeing introduced the 747 in 1969, and 20 years later brought out the most recent model, the extensively redesigned 747-400, the largest passenger jet now in service.

Although Boeing would have to re-engineer the wing structure and landing gear to accommodate the extra length and weight of a stretched version, modifying an existing, proven aircraft is far easier than building a new plane from scratch.

Boeing has previously said a stretch 747 could be delivered well before Airbus' 2005 target date, and for far less - between $2 billion and $3 billion, compared to $12 billion for Airbus' A3XX project.

Boeing engineers spent more than a year in the mid-1990s studying whether the company should build its own all-new superjumbo, but the plan was dropped in 1997 when Boeing determined that the plane would be too expensive. Boeing and Airbus also disagree on the demand for a superjumbo - Airbus pegs it at about 1,500 aircraft, while Boeing thinks only about 360 will be needed over the next 20 years.

Boeing subsequently drew up plans for the stretch 747.