Boeing flies east

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WHO WAS host at the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) conference in Seattle at the end of last week? Was it President Bill Clinton, flushed with triumph after Wednesday night's Washington vote on Nafta or was it Frank Schrontz, chairman of the Boeing Company? At times it was hard to tell.

Boeing was everywhere. The President arrived here on Thursday - aboard a Boeing. That evening, the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, visited Boeing's Everett plant. All week, journalists were ferried from Seattle to Everett to view the astounding facility - 98 acres under one roof.

An uninvited guest barging in on the party? Not really. The omnipresence of Boeing at the summit was fitting. In spite of continuing dramatic workforce reductions - around 16,000 over the past 18 months and another 7,000 still to go - and a 35 per cent cutback in aircraft production this year, the company remains by far the largest employer in the Seattle area. And as America's biggest exporter, especially to Asia, it could also claim a particular interest in the Apec proceedings.

Statistics abounded on the growing importance of Asia to the plane-maker. More than half the Jumbos coming off the line are destined for Asian carriers (this year, one in seven 747s will go to mainland China alone).

'The Asia-Pacific region is the engine of growth, growing faster than any other place on the planet,' Mr Shrontz explained at his own press conference in the summit conference hall. Pacific Rim countries, according to Boeing, will account for 43 per cent of world growth in air travel in the period to 2010, with its carriers purchasing an additional 3,000 aircraft. By the turn of the century, Asia will be a larger jetliner market than America.

Most startling is the volume of Boeing sales to China which, over the same 17 years is expected to absorb 800 of the new aircraft. The company presently has 62 aircraft on order from China not yet delivered. With new airlines proliferating in the People's Republic - 42 at the last count - the demand continues to grow.

Meanwhile, Asia is increasingly becoming a lead source of Boeing components. A consortium of Fuji, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki in Japan is making sections of the 777 fuselage - the new plane, to be the world's biggest twin-engine wide body aircraft, will be rolled out next spring. Some Boeing parts, including tail fins, are also being manufactured in southern China.

No wonder Boeing supports the Apec effort, even if dreams - mostly American and Australian - of transforming the 4-year-old forum into a fully fledged free-trade organisation currently seem over-optimistic. Of more immediate importance to the company is the success of the Gatt world trade talks. 'We must increasingly view ourselves as citizens of a single planet,' Mr Shrontz declared, 'increasingly participating in a single market place.'

Boeing officials made no bones of their hope that the spectacle of the Apec summit and the prospect of greater regional co-operation in the Pacific may have helped to chivvy European governments - a polite code for France - into clearing the last obstacles to a Gatt accord. 'I think a very strong message from Seattle for a satisfactory conclusion of the Uruguay Round could put an awful lot of pressure on our European friends,' remarked Larry Clarkson, a Boeing corporate vice-president.

Asia may offer Boeing its brighest hope, but the American and European markets are far from forgotten. On Wednesday, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the only consistently profitable carrier in America, ensured the future of Boeing's planned 737- X - bigger and faster than existing 737s - by announcing firm orders for 63 of the aircraft. The company, meanwhile, expects to pursue joint studies with British Aerospace and the European Airbus partners on developing a mega-Jumbo Jet, perhaps capable of carrying 800 passengers.

And there is always British Airways, one of Boeing's most important and loyal customers. 'They are, after all, making money, which is rather unique these days,' joked Mr Shrontz.

(Photograph omitted)