By Alwyn Scott and Tim Hepher
LYNNWOOD, Wash./PARIS (Reuters) - Boeing Co (BA) said Wednesday it plans to bring its next-generation 777X jet into service by the end of the decade, a time frame that had come under question after remarks from the company's chief executive last year.
At the same time, sources familiar with the design confirmed that the 777X design is expected to have folding wingtips, a novel feature that would allow bigger wings to fit into the same-sized airport parking space as the current 777.
"We have not changed our schedule," said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said at a conference in Seattle organized by the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance. "We're focused on these airplanes coming to the market late in the decade."
However, Tinseth declined to confirm that the 777X design included folding wings.
The 777x is a mini-jumbo jet modeled after Boeing's 777, the industry's most popular wide-body aircraft that can seat more than 300 passengers.
Twin-engine, long-haul aircraft seating around 350 to 400 passengers is seen as the industry's next big battle with both Boeing and rival Airbus competing for a potential market of several thousand aircraft.
Last November, it appeared that Boeing might be a year or more away from formally offering the new 777 widebody jet.
That view arose after Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney said on a conference call with analysts in October that "we are looking at the end of the decade, beginning of the next decade" for entry into service.
Wednesday's presentation by Tinseth was "a lot more confident," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. "This looked like a stronger marketing message," he added and implies the plane could be offered to customers this year.
Customers, including the 777's biggest buyer, Emirates Airline (EMIRA.UL), have pushed for the 777X as early as possible. But Boeing has been slow to formally launch the program with what is known as "authority to offer."
To be sure, the timing could be affected by the 787. Tinseth said Boeing's main focus is on getting its 787 Dreamliner flying again after the plane was grounded worldwide because batteries burned on two of the jets last month.
But if the 777X is offered this year, a firm industrial launch could follow eight to 12 months after Boeing starts taking orders, Aboulafia said, and "entry into service by the end of the decade would be quite feasible."
It was not immediately clear how airlines, which tend to shy away from complexity, would respond to the proposed folding wingtips if retained in the final design. But Boeing is expected to woo them with increased range and capacity made possible by design changes including the brand-new and longer carbon-composite wings. The average passenger load of the most popular version could increase to slightly over 400 seats from 365 seats, according to industry sources briefed on the plans.
Airbus is marketing a mini-jumbo, 350-seat version of its mainly composite A350 to try to dent the success of the 777, and is likely to argue that 777 features such as fold-back wingtips could add maintenance risk.
(Reporting by Alwyn Scott and Tim Hepher; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)