Saturday, May 15, 2004 Boeing considers new 747 model -- again By Allison Linn The Associated Press SEATTLE -- Even as Boeing Co. touts its sleek new 7E7 as the future of flying, the airplane maker is yet again considering whether to revamp its fabled workhorse, the 747 jumbo jet. In the past decade, Boeing has floated many such plans for updating the 34-year-old 747, as it seeks to counter archrival Airbus' superjumbo A380. But most ideas have been shelved as customer interest failed to materialize. Meanwhile, Airbus has snagged 129 firm orders for the huge A380, a double-decker plane expected to debut in 2006 that will carry about 550 passengers. This time, Boeing is gauging interest in the 747A -- for "Advanced" -- that would be slightly larger and more technically advanced than the most current model, the 747-400ER. The plane would blend technology from the 7E7 with the 747's size in a package Boeing claims would be far cheaper to fly than the A380. The move comes as orders for the 747 have slowed to a trickle, with most interest remaining in the cargo version of the airplane. The idea for the 747A is still in its initial stages. Boeing spokeswoman Leslie Nichols said this week that a decision on whether to build the plane won't have to be made until at least the end of 2005. If the airplane is approved, it wouldn't be in service until at least 2009. Boeing's Seattle-based commercial airplanes division is focused on the fuel-efficient, mid-sized 7E7, officially launched earlier this year and scheduled to begin service in 2008. Company executives say they believe passengers and airlines mostly want such 200- to 300-seat jets that can fly directly to long-range destinations. They say the market is smaller for much bigger planes, like the 747 and the A380, which could be used to fly between major hubs. But Boeing also appears eager to avoid being trounced by the A380 in the big plane market. Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group said the success of the 747A will depend on whether Boeing is really committed to spending the money to develop it, and whether that investment will be worth it when Boeing goes up against Airbus' extremely aggressive pricing. "I see no reason (the 747) should be obsolete. It's still a fundamentally great design," he said. But, he noted, "The last 10 years are littered with corpses of chances to rejuvenate the 747." The 747 design dates from the late 1960s, though the plane was almost totally redesigned with the 747-400, which started service in 1989. The 747A would hold about 30 more passengers than the extended-range 747-400ER, seating about 450 people instead of 416. In addition to new engines and an updated flight deck, Boeing is considering a complete redesign of the interior, reviving plans to create everything from sleeping areas to conference rooms in unused space at the top of the aircraft. Boeing previously floated similar ideas to add bunks and other amenities to 747s, but airlines didn't bite. The 747A's extra 20 feet of length would not only allow more passengers, but extra cargo space. Alan Mulally, head of Boeing's commercial airlines division, has talked to both Cathay Pacific and Cargolux about their interest in a cargo version of the 747A, but Boeing declined to identify which airlines had been approached about the passenger version. The 747A would incorporate some of the technology being developed for the 7E7, including new engine designs from General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce PLC. Boeing says the 747A would be quieter than the current 747s, answering a common complaint about older models of the four-engine plane. Boeing says the new plane would use less fuel per passenger carried than any other jumbo jet, including the A380. And it makes much of the fact that the 747A wouldn't require special modifications at airports. Some airports may have to make changes to terminals or runways to accommodate the big A380. Airbus argues that the A380's size means it will make better use of precious takeoff and landing slots at busy airports, while efficiently using crews and other resources. "They've made several stabs at reinvigorating the 747 and nobody's wanted to buy it," David Venz, a vice president at Airbus North America, said Friday. "If it's so advanced, why hasn't anybody wanted to buy it?" Aboulafia said he believes there's about a 50 percent chance the 747A will get built, but this time the stakes may be higher. If Boeing again chooses to scrap the design, he said, it could be the beginning of the end for the 747. "I think it comes down to the 747 line: Should it stay or should it go?" Aboulafia said. On the Net: Boeing: www.boeing.com Airbus: www.airbus.com Attached Photo: Boeing employees work on a Boeing 747-400F being built for China Airlines Friday, at the company's assembly plant in Everett, Wash. The company is considering whether to once again revamp the fabled 747 jumbo jet to a 747A version that would be larger and more technically advanced.