Boeing is leaning toward a bigger version of the 787 Dreamliner as the United States company seeks to outmanoeuvre Airbus in a widebody jetliner market it reckons will be worth almost US$2 trillion ($2.4 trillion) over the next 20 years.
The 787-10 could enter service by 2016, Jim Albaugh, Boeing's commercial aeroplanes chief, said yesterday before the Paris Air Show.
That would provide competition for Airbus' A350-900 and steal a march on the larger A350-1000, which won't be ready until 2017.
"We have to go through some more analysis and we haven't decided yet if we'll offer it, but it wouldn't surprise me if we did," Albaugh said.
Building the 787-10 would help Boeing counter the A350's threat in markets where the company's 777 - which captured the first widebody orders at the show yesterday - is dominant, giving it a breathing space to upgrade a design that debuted in the 1990s.
The largest Dreamliner would seat as many as 330 people, versus 210 to 250 for the 787-8 variant currently in production, and 250 to 290 for the planned 787-9. Airbus's A350-series planes will be able to carry between 250 and 400 passengers.
"The A350-900 is aimed directly at the 777-200ER, and the 787-10 would be a good way of defending that turf," said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of consulting company Teal Group. "It means they can attack the replacement market, which is very important."
Boeing, based in Chicago, received the first major order at the Paris expo with a contract from Qatar Airways for six 777-300ER long-distance planes - worth US$1.7 billion at list prices.
Qatar Air, the second-biggest Middle Eastern carrier, has 25 777s with 15 more already due for delivery and regards the model as the "backbone" of its long-haul fleet, chief executive Akbar al Baker said yesterday.
Albaugh said separately that Boeing would have "a number of announcements" for orders at the Paris show this week.
Boeing is seeking to catch Airbus after its rival remained world No 1 last year, delivering a record 510 planes, 48 more than the US company. Airbus is also top by orders, winning contracts for 644 jets, with 70 cancellations giving a net intake of 574. Boeing won 530 net orders after 95 cancellations.
Toulouse-based Airbus is delaying introducing the A350-1000 by 18 months to add range and payload. The 787-10 wouldn't match that model for distance, said Nick Cunningham, an aerospace analyst at Agency Partners in London, but would fill a "high-capacity, shorter-range niche". It might appeal to carriers that had already signed up for the two smaller variants.
The 787-10 would be about 15 per cent bigger than the 787-9, seating about 40 more passengers, Boeing executives said. Its operating costs would be 10 per cent lower than the A350-900 and 5 per cent lower than the A350-1000, said Nicole Piasecki, head of business development.
"Our customers are very interested in this aeroplane, and we're in the process now of deciding when to put it into service," Piasecki said.
Boeing will evaluate the timetable and performance of the A350-1000 before reaching a conclusion regarding the 777.
"The issue is whether they decide to respond with a 777 upgrade or replacement," said Cunningham. "They won't do two programmes at the same time."
Aboulafia said a launch decision for the 787-10 wouldn't in itself protect the market taken by the longest-range 777.
"It's what you do a notch up from that that's the question," he said. "It's not quite the same as having a definitive answer on the 777-300ER front."
General Electric would begin testing a new compressor next year with a view to developing its GE90 engine in order to be ready when Boeing decided the next step for 777, GE Aviation chief executive David Joyce said in Paris.
Joyce said he was not surprised Airbus was delaying the A350-1000 so Rolls-Royce Holdings could improve the performance of the Trent XWB engine that powers the twinjet.
"It's playing out a lot like we thought it would," he said. "We never thought you could have one engine that spans the size of those aircraft."
A verdict on whether to offer an all-new narrowbody or opt to re-engine the 737 would be reached "probably by the end of the year", Albaugh said.
"We're not going to be rushed into a decision," he said.
"I don't think there has really been a delay. We're really trying to get this right. By the end of the year we should have a decision."