Boeing mauls Airbus super jumbo plan

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Boeing yesterday savaged rival plans by the European Airbus Consortium to develop a "Super Jumbo", the next generation of large passenger airliner. At the opening day of the Farnborough Air Show, the jamboree for the UK's aerospace industry, the US plane-making giant claimed Airbus forecasts for the market for such a plane were unrealistic.

"This might be a good time to offer a 'reality check'," said Ron Woodard, president of Boeing's Commercial Airplane Group. He claimed his company's predictions of the likely demand for 500-seater jumbos was almost one- third of Airbus's.

The European consortium plans to build a huge double-decker aircraft, the A3XX, that could seat up to 1,000 passengers. Airbus has a team studying the project and claims it could be developed for $8bn (pounds 5bn).

Boeing and Airbus have previously collaborated on the development of a super-jumbo, the so-called Very Large Commercial Transport, but the talks came to nothing. Mr Woodard said both sides had then agreed the cost would be between $12bn and $15bn. "We concluded that there simply wasn't a large enough market to justify that size of investment. We don't think much has changed since then," he said. The Boeing plan is for a more modest stretched version of the existing jumbo jet, the 747, which dates in basic design from the late 1960s.

The new 747, 500 and 600 would seat from 460 to 550 passengers, requiring a longer fuselage, new wings and engines. Boeing estimates this programme alone will cost $5bn to develop with a price tag of $230m per plane when the first one is delivered in 2001. The two sides differ radically over the anticipated demand from airlines for super-jumbos with more than 500 seats.

Airbus believes that lack of runway space and environmental considerations will encourage carriers to cram more passengers on to larger aircraft. Over the next 20 years that should translate into 1,400 orders for the A3XX.

Boeing argues there will be enough room for more frequent flights and, coupled with the trend towards non-stop long-haul travel, the demand for super-jumbos will be less than 500, insufficient to justify the development budget.

Privately, European aerospace companies accuse the US of using the failed collaborative talks to delay Airbus gaining a foothold in a market which Boeing has, until now, monopolised.

Yesterday Airbus was scathing about the latest Boeing attack. "The smaller number they are using is a self- serving proposition to support their claim that there's only room for one aeroplane," said David Venz, an Airbus spokesman.

He insisted the A3XX would be 20 per cent cheaper to operate per passenger than a conventional 747. Due to enter service in 2003, the A3XX will have to be one-third-funded by European governments in what Airbus describes as "refundable loans".

The consortium, which is planning to convert its structure into a conventional company, also needs to attract partners, probably from the Far East, to share the risk and provide 40 per cent of the capital. But Boeing has troubles of its own with the 747 500-600. Hopes that the plane would be formally launched at Farnborough were dashed because the company had failed to persuade an airline to make a firm order. It hopes to achieve this by the end of the year.

However, Boeing did use the airshow to announce $6.3bn of new orders, of which around $1bn are thought to have come from British Airways.

BA is buying four 747-400s, three 777-200s and three 757-200s. In addition, it yesterday brought forward the delivery dates for 10 more 747-400s which cost $155m each.

Boeing said it planned to almost double production from 18 to 36 planes a month by 1998. It recently announced it was taking on a further 5,000 workers to cope with demand for the 777.