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By almost any standard, Boeing’s commercial-jet factory in Everett, WA, is an impressive place. For one thing, it is the world’s most voluminous building-you could fit all of Disneyland plus five hectares of parking in it. And it’s the birthplace of many of the world’s largest commercial jets, including Boeing’s 767, 777, and 747, the legendary 400-plus seat jumbo jet that has dominated much of long-distance air travel over the last three decades. One of the factory’s football-field-sized doors is emblazoned with a giant image of three jets soaring toward a crimson sunset and the inscription “Building the Future of Flight Together.” But on a recent drizzly day, the door was partly opened, revealing that the cavernous hangar, big enough to hold three mid-sized passenger jets, is empty.

Given the slowdown in the commercial-aviation business, the idleness of some sections of the huge aircraft factory is no surprise. But despite the economic doldrums, in an office park just a kilometer away, Boeing engineers are busily designing what they hope will solidify the company’s future as a commercial-jet maker. It’s called the 7E7 Dreamliner, and if all goes to plan, it will be Boeing’s first newly designed commercial jet since the 777 was rolled out in 1995.

At first glance, the 7E7 will be a rather conventional-looking mid-size plane that carries between 200 and 250 passengers. But Boeing says it will burn 20 percent less fuel than today’s similarly sized commercial jets.

What’s more, built of lightweight composites and packed with sophisticated electronic controls and diagnostics, the 7E7 could cheaply and efficiently travel an ocean-hopping 14,800 kilometers, demonstrating the same range and speed as large jets, like the 747. In other words, the 7E7 could get you from Paris to Minneapolis without a stop and, company officials say, do it less expensively than any large commercial jet flying today.

Those numbers could have dramatic implications for air travelers. Relatively small, long-range planes could offer routine flights to far-flung international cities without stops in large hubs. Indeed, Boeing foresees a market for as many as 400 new direct routes between city pairs like Munich and Singapore, Dubai and Taipei, or Athens and Atlanta. Low operating costs and increased scheduling flexibility could help keep ticket prices down and provide a desperately needed boost to the ailing airline industry. In short, Boeing’s engineers and designers are betting the 7E7 is the right plane for the struggling, highly competitive air travel business.

Whether the company’s management agrees, however, remains to be seen. Weighing the need to replenish its aging fleet of commercial jets against the daunting requirement of a multibillion-dollar investment to develop the 7E7, the company’s board of directors is expected to decide whether to go forward in early 2004. If it approves the project-and that remains a huge if-the first planes would be delivered in 2008; if it doesn’t, Boeing’s engineers will have to go back to the drawing board, with the company’s future in the balance. (Boeing is also doing a concept study on a next-generation 747, which would be 5 percent more efficient and slightly larger than the most recent 747s, which rolled out in 1989.)

Indeed, the stakes on the 7E7 could hardly be higher. Industry experts calculate it costs roughly $10 billion to produce a new model of commercial jet. And they estimate the 7E7 program is already consuming half of Boeing’s annual commercial-jet research-and-development budget of $768 million. By Boeing’s own admission, the fate of its entire commercial-jet business might well rest on getting the new plane right. “It’s the future. It really is. It’s a huge deal for us,” says Mark Jenks, Boeing’s director of technology integration for the 7E7 program. “If we get it wrong, it’s the end. And everyone here knows that.”

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