Talks are due to take place in London tomorrow between Boeing, British Aerospace and the three other partners in the Airbus programme to review progress since a feasibility study was launched 13 months ago.
The five companies have been examining the possibility of building an aircraft capable of carrying between 550 and 800 passengers up to 10,000 miles, enabling it to operate non-stop on long-haul routes such as London-Tokyo. The 747 has a payload of 420 passengers and a range of 7,300 miles.
The Very Large Commercial Transport (VLCT) aircraft, as it is known, would enter service early next century and could cost anywhere between dollars 5bn and dollars 12bn to develop.
However, tensions between some of the Airbus partners and Boeing are said to have brought the project to the brink of collapse.
The French partner in Airbus, Aerospatiale, is thought to be ready to pull out of the joint studies in order to develop a wholly European super Jumbo. BAe may follow suit, according to some sources.
That would increase the likelihood of Airbus joining forces with the Japanese to build the new aircraft. The other two Airbus partners are Deutsche Airbus, which has a 37.5 per cent holding and has led the joint studies with Boeing, and Casa of Spain.
Tomorrow's meeting takes place against a background of renewed antagonism between the US and European camps following President Clinton's announcement that Boeing had beaten Airbus to a dollars 6bn jet order from Saudi Arabia.
The five aerospace companies are to be represented by 'senior executives' although Boeing would not confirm that its chairman, Frank Shrontz, is flying in from Seattle to attend.
According to European aviation sources, phase one of the feasibility studies - covering the technical specification of the aircraft, where and how it would be built and the potential market - has ended with virtually no progress. 'It appears the French are going to shut the door on phase two and walk out,' said one. 'If that happens, BAe could well side with the French.'
The suspicion in some European quarters is that Boeing has no intention of developing a rival to its own jumbo jet in partnership with Airbus and is using 'delaying tactics' to string out the joint studies until it is ready to launch its own 747 successor, known as the New Large Aircraft programme.
There could also be anti-trust objections to the development of just one super Jumbo, although up until now Boeing has argued that no single manufacturer could support the huge development costs.
A Boeing spokesman said: 'It has been a businesslike relationship but that doesn't imply the project is going to move forward into production. There is an option simply to stretch the existing 747. We could do that whether or not we went ahead with the VLCT.'Reuse content