Forty years on, birth of a new Boeing jumbo

Sun Feb 13, 2011 9:35am EST

* 747-8 Intercontinental to compete with Airbus A380

* Sales of latest jumbo slow to pick up, deliveries late

* New design could be used as U.S. presidential plane

By Bill Rigby and Tim Hepher

SEATTLE/PARIS, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Boeing (BA.N) was set to roll out a new jumbo jet later on Sunday, hoping to relive the glamour surrounding the birth of the 747 over 40 years ago and use it to boost slow sales.

The 747-8 Intercontinental will seat 467 passengers, 51 more than the current version of the 747, and burn less fuel while offering passengers more comfort, the U.S. planemaker says.

The unveiling comes almost 42 years to the day since the maiden flight of the 747, which went on to be the world's most recognised jetliner and transformed the global travel industry.

It is the first appearance of a radically new version of the passenger jet since the first jumbo, with its humped two-storey cabin and 196-foot (69 meter) wingspan, took the world's breath away on a sunny morning at Everett in September 1968.

"People were awe-struck. It was a monster; nobody had seen anything like it," said Jim Mullins, a Paris-based science writer who covered the original roll-out for King Broadcasting.

"Today it looks ordinary but at that time there were no airplanes even close to it in size. They opened up the hangar doors and it was just unbelievable. People reacted as if they were rolling out the Empire State Building."

The roll-out is scheduled to take place at the same Everett plant outside Seattle at 11 a.m. (1900 GMT).

The 747 lost its crown as the world's largest airliner when the 525-seat Airbus EAD.PA A380 was unveiled in 2005. But at 19 feet longer than predecessors this one will be the longest.

It is the first time the 747 fuselage has been stretched to make the biggest passenger jet marketed by a U.S. manufacturer.

The 747-8 also boasts new wings, a new tail, a sharper nose, state-of-the-art engines and a new cockpit, making it, according to specialist magazine Flight International, "unrecognisable from that first jumbo jetliner".

SLOW SALES

Big is not yet beautiful for the Boeing order book, however.

Despite its hopes of securing a new lease of life for the 747 family, Boeing has so far managed to win 33 orders for the 747-8 passenger version including just two airlines: Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) and Korean Air Lines (003490.KS).

The first delivery will be to an unnamed VIP customer instead of an airline late this year, but Boeing has said it is confident of winning new orders as the plane enters service.

It may also become the new international face of the United States as Boeing seeks to replace the Air Force One fleet of two instantly recognisable 747s used by American presidents. Production has been delayed as the 787 Dreamliner, a carbon-composite plane which represents a bigger leap in technology than the revamped 747-8, diverts engineering time.

Boeing says the first 747-8 that the public will get to fly on will be delivered to Germany's Lufthansa next year.

A stronger-selling freighter version, which has already taken flight, is due to be delivered in mid-2011, 18 months later than first planned. Boeing has sold 74 747-8 freighters.

Both Boeing and Europe's Airbus have suffered muliple plane project delays, damaging their credibility, say many analysts.

Sales of earlier generations of the 747 far soared above the industry's initial expectations, with more than 1,400 classic jumbos sold until the 747-400 was withdrawn from sale last year.

Although the 747-8 and A380 will compete directly for years to come, analysts say airlines are mostly interested in lighter wide-bodied planes in the 200-350-seat range like the 787 and the future Airbus A350. They are designed to by-pass crowded hubs and take passengers closer to their final destination.

Boeing will give an update on the delayed 787 on Monday. (Writing by Tim Hepher)

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