EVERETT, Washington (Reuters) - Boeing Co. (BA.N) unveiled its lightweight, carbon-composite 787 Dreamliner on Sunday in front of 15,000 cheering employees, customers and suppliers, capping a weekend of hype and a flurry of orders for the new fuel-efficient plane.
The elaborate unveiling ceremony, at the company’s Everett, Washington plant, gave the crowds their first full look at the mid-sized, long-range jetliner, which is Boeing’s first all-new plane in 12 years and has already attracted more than $100 billion in orders.
Thousands more watched the event -- hosted by former TV news anchor Tom Brokaw -- live at Qwest Field stadium in nearby Seattle, and Boeing broadcast the ceremony worldwide on satellite television.
The gleaming, freshly painted jet was pulled into the main doors of Boeing’s plant to resounding cheers, after an hour-long introduction involving live picture feeds on a massive screen from teams working on parts of the plane from Japan, Italy, South Carolina and elsewhere.
Apart from its swept back, upward tilting wings, the plane did not look radically new on the outside. But beneath the just-dried paint the structure is made up of 50 percent carbon composite materials and another 15 percent titanium, making it much lighter and fuel efficient than existing jetliners of the same size.
After the ceremony, the audience of Boeing employees, aviation industry VIPS and media surged around the plane, with hundreds congregating under the fuselage to reach up and touch the glossy carbon.
“I love it,” said a Boeing wing mechanic who asked not to be named, admiring the plane. “I‘m looking forward to flying on it.”
It got the nod of approval from industry bigwigs too.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” said John Plueger, chief operating officer of leasing firm International Lease Finance Corp., the biggest buyer of the plane with 74 on order. “It looks very smooth, well proportioned.”
The plane is not scheduled to begin flight testing for at least another six weeks, and still needs its internal power and control systems fitted and functioning. It also needs about 1,000 temporary fastening bolts replaced by permanent ones, which Boeing said it will start work on immediately.
The use of fatigue-resistant and rust-free composite materials means air in the cabin can be more humid, leaving passengers less dried out and jetlagged after a long flight.
The twin-engine plane, which seats nine-abreast in coach, can carry 210 to 330 people in its three models of various sizes. Prices range from $146 million to $200 million.
Airlines have jumped at the plane after years of struggling to turn a profit. Boeing is rapidly closing in on 700 orders, and says a customer placing an order now would have to wait until 2015 for delivery.
The plane is trouncing rival Airbus, whose competing A350 XWB (extra wide body) has been bedeviled by design changes. The European plane maker conceded that the day -- 7/8/07 in U.S. date shorthand -- belonged to Boeing.
“Even if tomorrow Airbus will get back to the business of competing vigorously, today is Boeing’s day -- a day to celebrate the 787,” Airbus Chief Executive Louis Gallois wrote to Boeing CEO Jim McNerney in a letter made public by Airbus on Sunday.
Airbus and Boeing are the subject of a long-running EU-U.S. trade row over subsidies, and often jab at each other in the press. But the European company is most likely glad to cede the spotlight to Boeing since it puts pressure on the Chicago-based company to actually deliver the finished plane to customers.
Airbus learned the dangers of over-exposure when its A380 superjumbo -- unveiled amid massive celebration in 2005 -- later stumbled on wiring problems, putting it two years behind schedule.
Boeing’s new plane will not leave the ground until its first test flight in late August or September. First deliveries are expected by Japan’s All Nippon Airways Co. (9202.T) next May, in time to carry passengers to the Beijing Olympics that summer.
Forty-six other airlines and leasing companies are lining up behind ANA to take delivery of 787s, which will be wider, quicker and more fuel efficient than the 767s they are designed to replace. The 787 offers thousands of miles in extra range, making direct routes such as from Tokyo to New York easier and cheaper to fly.
On Saturday, German low-cost carrier Air Berlin (AB1.DE) ordered 25 of the planes, worth $4 billion, while Kuwait’s Aviation Lease and Finance Co. (ALAF.KW) ordered another 10, on top of 12 it already had on order.
That puts the number of firm orders for 787s at 677. That number is set to grow further as Australian carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. (QAN.AX) said on Friday it planned to order 20 more 787s, on top of 45 it has already agreed to buy.