Virgin Atlantic set to pay dollars 800m for six Boeing 777s

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VIRGIN Atlantic is set to buy six Boeing 777s for dollars 800m, giving a further boost for the wide-bodied aircraft being launched in Seattle today. A spokesman for Richard Branson's airline said the company had paid a deposit that reserved its position on the production line. It will decide whether to go to the next stage, taking an option, when it has evaluated the aircraft's performance.

Roy Gardner, Virgin's joint managing director, is attending today's 'roll-out' ceremony. The spokesman said the aircraft were likely to come into service in 1996 or 1997 and would be used on new Far Eastern routes, such as London to Singapore and Sydney, as well as on trans-Atlantic runs.

The twin-jet 777 will be the last new airliner launched this century, and is entering a fiercely competitive segment of long-range aircraft capable of carrying between 300 and 400 passengers. It will serve the market originally filled by the 747, which has increased its capacity and range substantially since it was introduced 25 years ago, and will rival the Airbus 330-340 and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11. The first aircraft will be for shorter, high-density routes, while a version with the longest range of any aircraft - 8,500 miles - will become available in 1996.

A Boeing spokesman said that since the marketing programme was launched in 1990, the 777 had won 147 orders and 108 options from 16 airlines - 80 per cent of the available business for its sector of the market. He said that it had the lowest operating costs and widest cabin in the sector, although Airbus says that its maintenance costs are higher than the 330-340.

Customers for the 777, which will cost dollars 115m-dollars 143m with engines, include British Airways, United Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, Japan Airlines and Emirates. The first aircraft, operated by United, will start service in May next year. BA will take delivery later next year.

British suppliers include Dowty, Smiths Industries, GEC and Shorts, and a number of airlines have selected Rolls-Royce engines. They do not include BA, which has plumped for Pratt and Whitney.

The roll-out ceremony will take place in the Seattle Assembly plant, which is the world's largest building by volume.

Boeing also announced it is starting development on a new-generation jump jet, to take over from the Harrier. It is one of three possible replacements for the British- designed aircraft, which will have to be replaced early in the next century. Rolls-Royce, which makes the engines for the Harrier and is the only company to make vertical take- off aero-engines, will be involved in all three programmes.