Boeing says plans for development of the proposed sonic cruiser remain unaltered despite the changes sweeping through the industry - although it admits projected entry into service is likely to slip to 2008.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes president Alan Mulally says the sonic cruiser remains the company's "number one" development priority and that the manufacturer must "look beyond" the current downturn. The company had talked earlier about fielding an aircraft as early as 2006.Having stretched development by more than two years, Boeing is expected to wait until 2002 before soliciting airline expressions of interest - Airbus' approach in the lead up to the A380 launch. Sources say Boeing could table firm specifications and prices in 2003. "There's been nothing from the airlines to indicate that we should not go on, and nothing that would constitute a slide in the programme," says Boeing, which is close to finalising the outline configuration for the first members of the family.

The company says two basic versions of the sonic cruiser will be outlined to airlines in the last week of this month. Final definition work is expected to be concluded around 20 October, before individual presentations are made to the 15 carriers involved in the programme.

The baseline variants are believed to be a 200-seater offering a longer range of 13,875km (7,500nm) and suitable for transpacific routes, and a higher capacity, 250-passenger version for 11,840km routes. Boeing adds that "we will probably bring both to market within a year of each other", though the potential launch sequence still depends on customer selection. It confirms that the initial variants are aimed at a cruise speed of Mach 0.98, the so-called "sweet spot" identified during recent windtunnel tests, the second phase of which is to resume in Seattle.

The company says the outline maximum take-off weight (MTOW) target is roughly related to the size of the sonic cruiser which is between those of the 767-300 and 767-400ER. This is thought to be roughly 200t.Boeing's goal of developing an aircraft in the size and MTOW class of the 767, but capable of flying at transonic speed, hinges on new advances in lighter weight structural materials to offset the higher fuel load. It is expected that the sonic cruiser's weight will grow and also its range, up to 15,725km, putting the US west coast within reach of South-East Asia.

Source: Flight International