US carrier Continental Airlines has agreed to order 10 Boeing 7E7 Dreamliner jets worth around US$1.3 billion, both companies announced on Wednesday.
Continental, the world's sixth largest carrier, is the first major US airline to sign up to purchase the next-generation Boeing jet, and the deal gives a major boost the world's biggest plane maker.
Boeing said the two companies signed an initial accord calling for delivery of the fleet of 7E7-8 planes starting in 2009. The deal is expected to be formally completed early next year.
"The 7E7 is simply a game changer," said Continental's chairman Gordon Bethune in a statement issued by Boeing.
"It will position Continental for significant international growth from our New York and Houston hubs over the next decade," he added.
The order for the wide-bodied fuel-saving jet that is due to enter service in 2008 comes after the new plane initially received only a lukewarm reception in the face of a tough challenge from the just-launched A350 of European consortium Airbus.
The deal boosts to 122 the number of orders for 7E7s announced by airlines since the plane program was launched in April of this year, Boeing said.
Some 56 of the orders for the big jets are firm contracts, and negotiations are underway with additional launch potential customers worldwide, it said.
"Continental is a bellwether addition to the 7E7 Launch Team," said Boeing vice president and general manager of the 7E7 program, Mike Bair.
Boeing got major boost to its 7E7 scheme, on which the aviation giant is staking its future, a week ago when Asia's biggest carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) said it would place a firm order for 30 of the planes with an option to buy 20.
* Boeing has received a total of 122 orders so far, of which 56 are firm contracts
* Airlines that have placed orders:
* Continental Airlines (10)
* All Nippon Airways (50)
* Japan Airlines (30, option to buy 20)
* Air New Zealand
* Blue Panorama (Europe-based)
* First Choice (Europe-based)
The aircraft maker had previously been disappointed by a lack of firm orders for the Dreamliner, a medium-sized aircraft which can hold 200 to 300 passengers.
Other launch customers for the jet are Japanese carriers All Nippon Airways (ANA) and JAL, Air New Zealand, European-based Blue Panorama and First Choice and US-based Primaris.
Of the 56 orders received by Boeing, 50 of them are from JAL's rival ANA.
Under the agreement signed with Boeing on Wednesday, Continental also agreed to lease eight much-smaller Boeing 757-300 jets starting next year and to speed up the delivery of six Boeing 737-800s to 2006.
Delivery of the 757s, which will be used on much shorter continental routes, will begin in July.
"Leasing these additional 757 and 737 aircraft will be another step in outdistancing our competitors in this rapidly changing environment," Continental's president and chief operating officer Larry Kellner said.