Boeing on Monday formally launched its 7E7 aircraft program after receiving a record US$6 billion order from All Nippon Airways for the super-efficient "Dreamliner."
The aircraft is seen as vital to the US aerospace giant if it is to regain its spot as the world's No. 1 manufacturer, a position it lost last year to Europe's Airbus.
Boeing's board had given preliminary approval in December with production depending on the first firm order, announced Monday by All Nippon Airways (ANA), which ordered 50 of the aircraft.
The order, worth about US$6 billion at list prices, was the biggest ever for a new Boeing aircraft, the company said in a statement, adding that there were about a dozen potential clients.
"Airline interest in the 7E7 has been extraordinary. The size and speed of this order validates our view of the market and demonstrates the tremendous demand for the performance and value provided by the 7E7," said president and chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airlines Alan Mulally.
"We expect additional orders in the coming weeks and months," he added.
The midsize jet, nicknamed the Dreamliner, is described as being 20 percent more fuel-efficient than comparable aircraft in its class, with the long-haul range of a larger aircraft, capable of flying 14,500km to 15,400km nonstop.
Aviation experts had been expecting the first order from a Japanese airline because about a third of the new jets will be made in Japan.
The airplane's first flight is scheduled for 2007 and ANA is to begin taking deliveries in 2008.
Boeing vice president Mike Bair said he expected orders coming from Europe and elsewhere in the near future.
"I think you can clearly expect something to come out of Europe this year, and it is also true in the United States and elsewhere in the world [including] the Middle East," he told reporters, adding that orders could come from China as well "in a relatively near term."
Boeing is forecasting that demand for the jet, which is designed to replace the DC-10, B-757, and B-767, will run about 2,000-3,000 units over the next 20 years.
Much is riding on a successful launch of the aircraft, which will be the US aircraft-maker's first all new commercial jet for more than a decade, after the 777.
The aerospace giant, rocked by scandals related to defense contracts, which led to the resignation in November of longtime chief executive Phil Condit, is banking on the Dreamliner to revitalize its core aircraft-making business which has been battered by the slump in air travel.
On top of that, it has been steadily losing market share to European rival Airbus, which will soon be competing head-to-head with Boeing in the jumbo airliner range with the launch of its A380 scheduled to enter service in 2006.
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