- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

SEATTLE (AP) — Air France said yesterday it plans to replace part of its aging fleet of cargo planes with Boeing’s new 777 freighter, but the airline would not say whether it will become the launch customer for the proposed new airplane.

Boeing Co. spokesman Marc Birtel confirmed that Air France is among the airlines interested in the new plane, but he would not speculate on when the French airline might bring the airplane into its fleet.

Air France spokesman Jean-Claude Couturier said the 777 freighter is the favored option to replace its eight Boeing 747-200s. But Air France would not comment on a report in financial daily La Tribune that the carrier is about to become Boeing’s first customer by ordering seven of the 777 freighters.

Chicago-based Boeing said in November that it would begin offering a 777 freighter to customers, aiming to put the airplane into service by the end of 2008. But the company, which makes commercial airplanes in the Seattle area, has yet to snag a launch customer that would make the new freighter program a reality.

The 777 freighter would be based on the passenger version of the long-range 777-200LR, which is scheduled to enter service in early 2006. The freighter would be able to carry 222,000 pounds of cargo up to 6,400 miles.

Rival Airbus SAS has said its new “superjumbo” A380 freighter will be able to carry 341,000 pounds of cargo the same distance. It also is scheduled to enter service in 2008.

Boeing’s biggest freighter offering is the 747-400ER, which could carry 248,000 pounds of cargo 5,700 miles.

Analyst Richard Aboulafia with the Teal Group said a key advantage of the 777 freighter for commercial airlines such as Air France is that it has just two engines, compared with four engines for the A380 and the 747 freighters. That could be a big cost savings for an airline that doesn’t need as much space as the bigger planes offer.

But he said the 777 freighter could steal business away from airlines who might otherwise buy Boeing’s 747 freighter, at the same time as the A380 freighter is squeezing 747 business with airlines interested in more cargo space.

“You’re getting into the 747’s niche and that’s probably the biggest single complication behind introducing the 777 freighter,” Mr. Aboulafia said.

The A380 freighter already has won orders from United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp., and some analysts say the big airplane has huge potential for ferrying goods around the world. Meanwhile, Boeing’s 747 program has become increasingly reliant on cargo orders, having seen very little interest in the passenger version of the jumbo jet in recent years.

Mr. Birtel said Boeing believes the 777 freighter will complement, rather than compete against, its 747 offering.

Air France — now part of Air France-KLM SA, the world’s largest airline — also is looking to replace four of its larger 747 freighters, which could provide another opening for Airbus.

Although Air France has ordered 10 A380 passenger jets, Mr. Couturier suggested that a decision on whether to buy “superjumbo” freighters was some way off.

“Air France has not yet given any consideration to the A380,” he said.

An Airbus spokeswoman did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

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