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SEATTLE (Reuters) - Far from the publicity glare of Boeing Co's (BA.N) overdue Dreamliner project, an updated version of its iconic 747 jumbo jet is quietly inching toward its own test flight, an event that could restore some credibility Boeing has burned with the stalled Dreamliner.
Though not nearly as innovative or fuel-efficient as the revolutionary carbon-composite 787 Dreamliner, the 747-8 is sharing technology with the 787. Both are being assembled at the same massive Boeing complex in Everett, Washington.
It has been a rocky road for both planes, which now appear set for their first flights before the end of 2009. In fact, Boeing has not ruled out flying them on the same day.
"We got both of them going on simultaneously and our focus has to cover both airplanes," said Todd Zarfos, vice president of engineering on the 747, in a recent interview with Reuters.
The 747-8 Freighter is set for delivery in the third quarter of 2010, while the 747-8 Intercontinental, which is the passenger version, is scheduled for delivery in the fourth quarter of 2011. Boeing has 105 orders for 747-8s on its books at list prices between $293 million and $308 million.
The legendary 747 family has been in the air since 1969 and is Boeing's biggest and most recognizable commercial plane. The new model serves the 400- to 500-seat market between the Airbus EAD.PA A380 and the Boeing 777-300.
In 40 years of 747 production, Boeing has built 1,419 of the planes, and about 800 are still flying. According to Boeing's Current Market Outlook, large airplanes like the 747 accounted for about 4.6 percent of all 18,800 airplanes in service in 2008.
The 747-8, which uses new engine and wing designs, boasts greater fuel efficiency and lower operating costs than the A380, its closest rival, Boeing says. The Freighter can carry 16 percent more cargo than the previous 747 model, while the Intercontinental can carry 51 more passengers.
Boeing, whose reputation has been bruised by two years of Dreamliner delays, suffered more embarrassment last year when it put off delivery of the 747-8 Freighter to the third quarter of 2010 from late 2009.
The company blamed a two-month labor strike, problems with its suppliers and a shortage of engineering staff after many employees had been pulled to the 787 project.
"We had a lot of ... internal competition with the 787," Zarfos said. "When you go through a development program, obviously there's critical skills that you need. And if they all start to line up, which is what started to happen, that affects your timing."
Unlike the 787, however, the 747 developers have used time-tested development strategies: doing more design work in-house, making greater use of traditional airplane materials like aluminum, and assembling the aircraft in smaller pieces.
Boeing says 70 percent of the technology in the 747 is new. But the 787 design is almost completely new, and it uses an unprecedented number of outside suppliers and composite materials to reduce weight.
Large portions of the 787 are manufactured in foreign plants and then shipped in to Everett for assembly.
"For the 747, it would have been probably cost-prohibitive to kind of throw all the cards up in the air and say 'let's redo everything,'" Zarfos said.
Work on the first 747-8 is now more than 90 percent complete, company sources say. In Renton, Washington, 40 miles south of the Everett assembly plant, Boeing's test flight division awaits the 747. It's a heavy workload for the group, which also plans to test the 787 around the same time.
"We've gone through a pretty elaborate re-plan because we're going to be flying the 747-8 and the 787 at the same time," Dennis O'Donoghue, Boeing vice president in charge of flight test, told Reuters. "So as far as allocating resources to both programs, we had to work through that."
O'Donoghue said this is not the first time Boeing has tested two high-profile aircraft at once. The division also tested the 757 and the 767 at about the same time.
"We're used to high-workload situations," he said. "We've had as many as nine or 10 airplanes in flight test at one time before."
But all assurances aside, the fourth quarter of 2009 will be anything but routine for Boeing, said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst at the Teal Group.
A successful test flight for the 747-8 is the chance for Boeing to redeem itself and restore some luster to the brand with customers after the delays of recent years, he said.
"This looks like it's going to give the 747 another 20 years of life," Aboulafia said.
"Anything that reaffirms their ability to bring product to market would be very welcome, as well as getting stuff off the research spending line and on to the incoming revenue line."
Reporting by Kyle Peterson, editing by Matthew Lewis